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Mental health and the law 

What do we do about crazy people?

The recent murder of a local police officer and shooting of another by a person whose mental illness had allegedly been previously reported to law enforcement highlights the difficulty of responding to reports of mental illness.

On May 10, 2021, Edward Giron killed police Detective Luca Benedetti and wounded Detective Steve Orozco by lying in ambush as they executed a search warrant seeking property that had been stolen from a former employer. Detective Benedetti left a wife and two young children. Detective Orozco is expected to recover.

In comments to this paper, Giron's mother indicated that he had been in a "declining mental state," including displaying paranoia. She reported that she had fruitlessly contacted authorities numerous times advising them of his deterioration, and had even requested that he be placed in a 5150 mental health hold, which the authorities declined to do. Also in this paper, the Shredder has suggested that the killing was the result of a failure to provide Giron with "help and compassion," although Giron apparently never sought help ("Politicize everything?" May 20).

What should have been done? Of course, in hindsight it is obvious that Giron was dangerously deranged and should have been locked up. Still, Giron's criminal record was reportedly limited to "nonviolent drug, alcohol and property offenses," and no threats of violence were reported. Giron's criminal record was similar to that of many of our local homeless and other residents, and recent laws and edicts have ordered the release of many such offenders. Many of our more extreme political partisans are paranoid. Behavior is difficult to predict. Who do we lock up?

If we knew the answer to that question, Detective Benedetti would still be alive.

In the absence of serious criminal acts or threats, law enforcement is prohibited from intervening and placing anyone into care, unless they can show that they are an "imminent danger to others or themselves." In practice, this is a difficult standard to meet. Even then, the "hold" is for a very limited time. Otherwise, no one can be forced to get treatment, and many of the mentally ill refuse it.

These limitations are the result of our society's ambivalence and conflicting demands. We want to be safe, and we want the ill to be helped, but we also respect a person's personal autonomy and right to choose their own lifestyle and beliefs. Much of the problem comes from the fact that mental illness is subjective. We often celebrate eccentric and quirky behavior. Consider San Francisco. One person's "lunatic" can be another's "colorful character." Further, aberrant behavior and delusional thinking may be transitory, so that someone may appear coherent at certain times, such as when questioned by a cop. A potential for violence may go undetected up to the moment they commit a terrible act.

It has been the trend since the 1960s to take a more accepting view of what constitutes "normal" behavior. Recall the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which asylum patients were depicted as merely eccentric folks who were punished for failing to conform. An era which questioned norms on behavior, beliefs, and lifestyles, and which celebrated challenging authority, has given us an elastic and broader view of what is acceptable. We no longer want to be judgmental. A person engaged in a loud and angry argument with themselves is no longer a raving lunatic, but instead is a "nontraditional conversationalist" or merely "inwardly referential." What is more judgmental than calling someone crazy?

Society reacted to some now-shocking former mental health interventions, such as lobotomies and institutionalizing children for behavior that upset controlling parents. We grew wary of the objectivity of possible informants, such as estranged spouses or parents who disapprove of a child's lifestyle ("He's shooting marijuana!").

So we have defaulted to a standard requiring that a person must be about to kill someone else, or be perched on a ledge ready to jump, to enable the law to intervene. We have chosen to wait until an individual actually commits or threatens violent crimes before we act, and to occasionally be shocked by insane violence from those who are walking about freely.

The question of official policy on mental health interventions also is a central part of other issues. Should the authorities be able to force treatment on the addicted and mentally ill homeless? Should an unproven allegation of domestic violence be enough to seize someone's guns under a red flag law?

What should we do? As with many issues, intervention comes down to a very difficult choice between public safety and our personal freedoms. Before you quickly respond with some glib, ideologically driven proposal, please conduct an experiment: First, read Detective Benedetti's obituary, and consider the loss to his widow and children, and the countless others who have lost loved ones to the criminally insane. And then, go on down to the DMV, and decide if you would be comfortable entrusting the government to determine the state of your mental health.

Good luck. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who knows that he is sane because his parents had him tested. Send comments for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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