The tragic events in Tucson, Ariz., at a public meet-and-greet event by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., reached all the way back to Sequim.
Dorwan Stoddard, 76, who spent a decade in Sequim, was attending that event in front of a Safeway grocery store with his wife, Mavanell,“Mavy,” when a gunman opened fire.
Stoddard covered his wife on the ground to protect her from the barrage of bullets. He was shot three times, ending his life, said sister-in-law Sandy Stoddard of Sequim. Mavy Stoddard was shot three times in the leg.
Six people were murdered and 13 more were wounded.
The alleged murderer, Jared Loughner, described as a 22-year-old loner, now sits in federal custody in Phoenix, Ariz.
Loughner potentially faces the death penalty for murdering a federal judge and a federal employee and the attempted murder of three other federal employees, including the congresswoman.
What might seem like an open-and-shut case that would lead to a death penalty is not.
The media has reported that friends of Loughner describe him as “confrontational, nonsensical and obsessed;” others have reported him as a “social outcast … with beliefs steeped in mistrust and paranoia.”
Loughner’s behavior came to the attention of Pima Community College beginning in 2005, with five college police contacts involving nonviolent disturbances.
In September 2010, Loughner was suspended. He withdrew voluntarily the following month and was told he could return only if a mental health professional agreed he did not present a danger, the school said.
Hindsight might spotlight what appears to look like a psychotic spiral, but the laws on involuntary psychiatric commitment set a very high bar. Arizona, like Washington, requires evidence of imminent harm to oneself or others for an involuntary commitment.
Under Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act, a designated mental health professional can detain a person for up to 72 hours without a court order. Usually law enforcement officers are the first to come in contact with individuals who are in crisis, suicidal or exhibiting other life-threatening conditions, and they start the process for an ITA evaluation.
I have witnessed individuals in significant crisis walking out of emergency rooms in California, Oregon and Washington, where I’ve worked in policing since 1980. The challenge in getting actual help for people in need is nothing new for law enforcement or mental health professionals.
Pundits already are trying to turn the tragedy of Tucson into another political story for the Washington, D.C., Beltway and talk show hosts to banter about. What is missed is that this story with its murderous ends highlights a mental health system that is overburdened and underfunded.
According to Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict, his jail processes more than 3,000 book-ins annually. With a daily jail population of 120 inmates, he estimates that 30 percent have some type of mental health issue.
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, the mentally ill were dumped onto the streets of America. The 1963 Community Mental Health Act was supposed to channel federal grants to state and municipal governments to establish community mental health centers to deal with outpatient treatment of the mentally ill. Large state hospitals were to be replaced with community mental health care centers that would link patients with local services instead of locked-down facilities.
The big mental health hospitals began shutting down, but the funding for those progressive local facilities failed to live up to anyone’s expectations.
State hospitals emptied their patients onto the streets through the 1970s as nationwide the stereotypical monolithic mental health hospitals of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fame were closed.
National studies document that the numbers of mentally ill incarcerated in jails and prisons is a significant percentage of the overall inmate population. The rate of serious mental illness among inmate populations has been reported to be four times higher than the rate in the general, unincarcerated, population.
Next week we look into how jails have become the mental health facilities of the 21st century.
Robert Spinks is former Sequim chief of police. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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