Last month, Larry Dawson, a 66-year-old Tennessee man, entered the U.S. Capitol’s visitor center, causing a lockdown after showing his pistol-like pellet gun. During the confrontation, U.S. Capitol Police shot and wounded Dawson.
As I read about this in the Wall Street Journal, I couldn’t help but reflect on some painful memories. As a U.S. Secret Service agent, I was working on Capitol Hill when Russell Eugene Weston, Jr. entered the building and opened fire on July 24, 1998. Weston shot and killed two Capitol Police Officers who were former colleague of mine, Detective John Gibson and Officer Jacob Chestnut. The Capitol Police Headquarters Building is partially named in memory of Officer Chestnut and Detective Gibson.
We Have to Talk about Mental Health
While Weston’s exact motives are still unknown almost 18 years later, we have learned that he does suffer from a mental disorder and maintains a strong distrust of the federal government. He is currently in a mental institution being treated for paranoid schizophrenia and has yet to be tried in court.
It is public record that prior to the shooting Weston’s behavior concerned many agencies including the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms. This incident illustrated once again that it is critical for agencies to share information, especially regarding persons of interest who show warning signs or have a past history of mental illness and violence. And while agencies with protective responsibilities have greatly enhanced their communication with other agencies since my tenure as Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, we’re far from finished.
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and the author of “American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System.” He recently wrote an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal and pointed out that after an act of targeted violence receives national attention, legislation is discussed about how to better assist those with mental illness who may be on a path to harm themselves or others. Unfortunately, these laws are never passed.
Dr. Torrey cited a recently proposed bill from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646), which has 135 Republican and 51 Democratic co-sponsors. It is the only proposal that would be likely to affect the actual treatment of Larry Dawson, Russell Weston and countless others like them with untreated and serious mental illness who, because of their disease, are unaware of their own illness and need for treatment.
The provision in Rep. Murphy’s bill, which would make treatment possible, is called assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) and requires the individual to follow a court-ordered treatment plan. According to Dr. Torrey, in study after study, AOT has been shown to significantly reduce hospitalization, incarcerations and violent acts among individuals with serious mental illness. A study by New York State found that after the first six months of court-ordered treatment, “individuals in AOT showed a significant decline [44%] in the incidence of harmful behaviors,” such as threatening suicide or violence to others.
A Big Part of a Large Problem
Mental health plays a large role in workplace violence and active shooter incidents – and it’s disappointing that legislation that can help people struggling with mental illness has been stalled by politically motivated members fighting over gun control issues. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel has reported that the House Minority Leader has been holding up Rep. Murphy’s proposed legislation, preferring a victory against gun lobbyists over helping those with severe mental illnesses.
AOT doesn’t just help those who live with mental illness – it also helps their families, colleagues, communities and law enforcement. Just a few weeks ago, I met a woman who was desperate for assistance because her husband had refused to take his medication for mental health treatment for several weeks. She became even more worried when he lost his job, purchased a weapon and became increasingly paranoid. We often hear about situations like this after it’s too late, and it usually raises the question, “But if this happens to someone I know, what do I do? What are my options?”
In this situation, she contacted our firm and I facilitated a police escort for her and her young son to go to the hospital to sign a mental health commitment request for her husband. We increased police and private security resources to protect people who feared her husband. But not everyone has the means to do this.
We have a mental health crisis in this country. More lives will be lost and families on both sides of a tragic violent act will continue to be devastated until legislation such as Congressman Murphy’s bill is passed. Until then, we should continue to be aware of our colleagues’ and family members’ suspicious behaviors and warning signs that often suggest a violent act on the horizon.
I welcome your thoughts on this complicated issue.