Roughly 20 times a day, someone on Long Island makes the kind of telephone call that led Santa Barbara deputies to Elliot Rodger's Isla Vista apartment three weeks before his fatal rampage. As we now know, to our shared regret, the sheriff's deputies found him to be "shy, timid and polite," and not an imminent danger.
The deputies walked away.
Had they searched the apartment, they would have found three semiautomatic handguns and a cache of ammunition. Had they given more weight to his mother's fears that he was unstable, they might have discovered his record of gun purchases or misogynistic YouTube videos. Once the deputies left, Rodger took the videos down.
I can't imagine living with the emotional burden those officers are likely carrying today. It's unfair they were left to make the judgment about Rodger's freedom and his mental state on their own -- and yet cops across the country are asked to do this all the time.
In the days since his six murders and suicide, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has renewed its call for closer partnerships between first responders and mental health professionals. The advocacy group is made up largely of families of mentally ill people, and since this nation began shutting its psychiatric hospitals in the 1980s after scandals over poor conditions, U.S. families have been on the front lines. They are in the best position to understand where the system fails in a crisis.
Long Island has an extensive system of police-mental health cooperation -- perhaps because we are nowhere near timid or shy. Since 1975, Pat Devery has coordinated mobile crisis teams for Nassau and Suffolk counties as the associate director for crisis emergency services for Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in West Brentwood. Devery estimates there are a dozen calls a day in Suffolk and slightly fewer in Nassau. The calls come from mental health service centers, police, families or the individuals themselves who are in emotional anguish.
"If we think the person has a dangerous history, we will ask the police to come with us," Devery said. "We have to; we have to make sure our people are safe."
In other parts of the country, the impetus for such cooperation almost always comes from the local NAMI chapter, said Dan Abreu, an Albany-based adviser to law enforcement.
In more than 2,700 localities -- covering about half the U.S. population -- police units have trained in the "Memphis model" of crisis intervention, learning to de-escalate a crisis and explore alternatives to incarceration. Jails and prisons are overburdened as this country's default refuge for mentally ill people.
In many states -- especially Texas, Virginia and Colorado -- hospitals are creating crisis-stabilization units where a person can be held for 48 or 72 hours for evaluation, and respite units where someone might stay for a month.
But so much room for error remains. Carolyn Reinach Wolf, a Lake Success lawyer who specializes in mental health law, takes cases of alarmed families who are still searching for help after an inadequate response by crisis units or the police -- as many as 25 calls a month from around the country. Her wish list of reforms is encapsulated in a bill from Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.). It would allow families, therapists and police to share more information and lower the bar for involuntary commitment from "danger to oneself or others" to someone who "could benefit from care and treatment."
Had this been in place, six innocent people in Isla Vista might still be alive. And Rodger might be taking steps toward mental peace.