It is a painful, but necessary, process to look back at January 8, 2011, and analyze how those single few fatal, horrifying seconds might have been averted.
Each of us would give anything to make lives and families whole again. But in the absence of such an impossible wish, we can take action to shore up shortcomings in the system and build in additional protections to make the community safer.
The Arizona State Legislature passed a series of new mental health laws this session that went largely unheralded by the media, despite their significance. Had these laws been in place, it’s quite possible that what happened here on that day – a mass shooting that left six people dead and 13 others injured, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) – might have been prevented.
Until the Legislature changed the law this session, if law enforcement officers were notified that a person was a threat to themselves or others, those officers had to personally witness threatening actions or statements before they could take someone into custody for observation and possible stabilization.
That limitation has now been lifted. Law enforcement officers can now take statements from other witnesses. And, if they can meet the standard of probable cause that they must meet for any other crime, they can take someone in-crisis in for emergency psychiatric evaluation.
Trained mental health professionals at that point, can determine whether the person needs additional treatment and help them access community resources that will provide longer-term follow-up care if necessary.
In the case of Jared Loughner, there were many signs. Students were fearful. His gym teacher wasn’t comfortable teaching him without an officer close by. Officers asked for backup when they went to his home to deliver a notice of suspension.
If presented with such a case now, officers would be able to pull together all of those disparate pieces of information and get someone in the throes of a potentially violent crisis, the help they need.
Among other victories:
- More members of the community will be trained in an 8-hour course to identify signs of mental illness and help those experiencing a crisis, with a $250,000 allocation for Mental Health First Aid.
- More non-violent repeat drug possession offenders will have the opportunity to complete drug treatment instead of going to prison, with an allocation of $250,000 for the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program through the Pima County Attorney’s Office. Not only are treatment costs less than half the average cost of a 14-month prison term, but the program has effectively lowered recidivism, with participants nearly twice as successful staying drug- and crime-free.
- Teachers will be able to count suicide awareness and prevention training toward their continuing education requirements.
When I first started my career in law enforcement, there wasn’t much of a role for us when dealing with mental health issues, other than managing the immediate crisis. Jail was often the only option available, even though it is clear that the majority of people with a mental health diagnosis will not become violent.
We now recognize the vital role that law enforcement plays. More importantly, we are responding to that need.
Crisis intervention training now is embedded in the main curriculum at the academy for our new recruits and we have expanded such training for the enforcement officers already on staff.
We also created a special team to build relationships with those with mental health disorders who are heavy users of emergency services, as well as those who have been identified as violent and dangerous. This team serves all mental health court orders and petitions and follows up in cases where red flags might be evident. The end result: those with mental illness in need of treatment are better able to connect with help.
We all deeply regret the harm done and lives lost on Jan. 8, 2011. It would be far more regrettable to not learn from that event, and not do what we can now to address the issues that contributed to it.