November 30, 2009

Police shootings show once again that when the dangerously mentally ill don’t get help, everyone pays

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A man with a troubled history of violence bounces through the Arkansas mental health and criminal justice systems, finally ending up sick and dangerous on the streets of Washington state, where he commits violent attacks against strangers.

rita_hibbardwebIt happened two years ago in Seattle, when James A. Williams stabbed and killed Shannon Harps outside her Capitol Hill apartment. And it may have happened again in Parkland, near Tacoma, on Sunday morning. Police  throughout the region currently are looking for Maurice Clemmons, who they want to question in connection with the fatal shootings of four police officers.

In both cases, warning flags were all over the place in the men’s interactions with law enforcement. Prosecutors warned of dangers to the community. Both men threatened family members and members of the court system. Yet in the most recent case, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the conservative who now has a weekend show on the Fox network, pardoned Clemmons nine years ago, citing his youth, against warnings by prosecutors.

This could be about liberal and conservative politics. About the hypocrisy of conservatives who rail against those who are “soft on crime,” yet pardon dangerous criminals and today duck behind careful statements issued by their PACs. But it’s not.

InvestigateWest journalists Carol Smith and Daniel Lathrop reported in depth on the case of Williams and his victim, Shannon Harps, using the case to tease apart the state’s mental health/judicial system, and examine where the money is truly spent when the sick don’t receive the care they need. Carol won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism this year for her continuing work on that issue with a story on one family’s struggle, which appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before it ceased its print edition.

The issue hasn’t gone away, as the events of this weekend show.

As Carol’s work pointed out, states need to come to terms with the money spent on treating mental illness. They need to spend money where it is needed, not hide behind the illusion that money spent locking up the mentally ill in county jails and prisons or repeatedly dealing with them on the streets is somehow not spending money.  We are not “saving” money by cutting  needed services from the budget, or trimming community mental health workers’ salaries, or by reducing mental health spending to the point where the seriously mentally are repeatedly warehoused in jails or emergency rooms, growing increasingly ill, only to pop up in other areas of the country, to injure themselves or other members of the community. Washington state is now dealing with the loss of four police officers, shot dead in the line of duty, in the one of the most violent episodes in the state’s history. And how much money was saved?

In 2006, Arkansas spent $39 per capita on mental health, compared to the average per capita spending in the U.S. of $104, according to the most recent numbers compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Washington state spent $99 per capita that same year. These numbers don’t include the uncounted costs, of course, the emergency rooms, the county jails, the drunk tanks. And it’s unlikely the trend has gotten any better over the recession.

It’s time for us, Arkansas, Washington, and the rest of the U.S., to realize mental illness is not the other guy’s problem. It’s our problem, and the time to deal with it is now.

— Rita Hibbard

5 thoughts on “Police shootings show once again that when the dangerously mentally ill don’t get help, everyone pays

  1. I disagree with Tom Chandel. I don’t find it at all to be “taking advantage of a tragedy”.

    However, it’s not immediately obvious to me just exactly how Maurice Clemmons should have come within the purview of the state’s mental health system.

    It seems to me that barring his voluntarily committing himself, the only way this could have come about is if a judge had remanded Clemmons for treatment after a trial.

    I certainly didn’t conclude from reading Hibbard’s article that she meant to in any way minimize the terrible deaths of the four policemen. It is not disrespectful to them to point out that if Clemmons had somehow gotten treatment, perhaps this tragedy might have been avoided.

  2. There was a time (1950’s?) when it was easy for a relative to have another relative committed to a mental hospital. That led to abuse. Is it even possible now? Why can’t we find a middle ground? Family and friends are in the best position to notice a deteriorating mental state in an individual. Are they even listened to now?

  3. As the son of a psychiatrist who spent a large part of his career applying his expertise in the criminal justice system — appearing in court hundreds, if not a thousands, of times on behalf of both the state and criminal defendants, I can say pretty comfortably, Rita, that you hit the nail on the head.

    Mental health has never been given the serious treatment it deserves. It has been a monumental struggle just to get mental health parity in insurance coverage written into law. And one need only walk the streets of Seattle to see an ever-growing number of people who must deal with their own personal demons. Society shrugs it off — until something tragic happens.

    Caseloads are too big, the number of mental health professionals is too small, and the number of people suffering from treatable mental disorders who are instead left to suffer on their own keeps growing.

    Don’t get me wrong, my father recognized that there are some “mean, nasty, vicious people” out there who cannot use mental health troubles to excuse their behavior or mitigate their responsibility. And those people should be held accountable — in prison, where they belong.

    But there are also countless tragedies that could be averted if only we paid as much attention to mental health as we do physical health.

  4. Tom Chandel:

    You are a big pile of uninformed wrongness. The only thing you are correct about was this article missing the mark in your case, because this article was aimed directly at you, and by you I mean the Uninformed Masses.

    A) In what way does the author take advantage of this tragedy? What does Rita Hibbard stand to gain by publishing an article highlighting a very real problem in America? Look at the amount of mass shootings we’ve had since the recession. This is not the first or the last. There is an upswing in psychopathic crime in this country because

    B) The author is 100% correct about our mental health care systems. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and this very day, as in December 1st, 2009, a layoff occurred at the Madison Mental Health Center because the budget was gouged. Now the already swamped center is working with fewer employees and less fiduciary breathing room because the money goes to other branches that have precedence.

    Mentally ill people are walking our streets, laid off by the recession, unable to get their meds or therapy, and flipping out in murderous rampages. Thank you to Rita Hibbard for pointing this problem out, and Tom Chandel, please reconsider your position.