Ferguson and Smart Justice

policewomen.police.people in uniform.team workSometimes I read or hear things from disparate places that are stated in separate contexts that bring home a point about things I am thinking about. That happened this week in regard to the riots in Ferguson and an article on a common denominator among mass murderers.

Everyone by now has heard the story of Ferguson. A cop shot down a monstrous boy/very young man in the middle of the street. Accounts widely diverge from self-defense to cold blooded murder, and the rioting and looting and militaristic police response has been a national saga ever since.

I also read, an op ed piece on the common thread among mass murders in recent history that was tucked away in the Mad World online written by a conservative, gun right pundit. It can be read here (Nearly Every Mass Shooting has this One Thing in Common, and It Isn’t Weapons).

Those are a couple of pretty unrelated things, right? Maybe not if you are a conservative, gun-right-preaching zealot, or even a left-leaning libertarian gun right believer in protecting one’s self against the excessive force of a rogue government law enforcement agency. But, that is not the connection that these two things had for me.

Mental illness is the thing. I am no expert on mental illness, though I once worked in a state run institution for developmentally disabled adults. While there, I developed distrust for drug prescribing psychiatrists and state run bureaucracies. Those patients were over-medicated, it seemed to me, more to make their caregiver’s’ lives easier rather than for any benefit to the patients; but I admit my observations were not educated ones.

The point of the article is that nearly all of the recent mass shootings were perpetrated by people who had been prescribed psychotropic drugs – SSRI drugs (Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors). These are drugs with common names such as Zoloft, Luvox, Prozac, Ritalin (I am not sure that is one), Paxil, etc.) You can see the list of perpetrators and their drugs at Ammoland Gun News (yes, Ammoland Gun News, believe it or not)

Something did not sit right for me about the article so I asked a friend about it. My friend, who works in the psychiatric field with her husband, commented that the shooters likely became manic or had a “mixed episode” of mania and depression after taking the SSRI or the stimulants because, in fact, their correct primary diagnoses were actually bipolar disorder, not major depressive disorder or anxiety disorder or ADHD. SSRIs are potentially dangerous if prescribed for bipolar disorder.

She also told me, on average, it takes a psychiatrist in the U.S. 10 years to make a correct diagnosis for bipolar disorder, maybe even longer if it is the milder version, bipolar II. That is really pathetic. (Her words) The other piece of information that is not included here that should be is that many people with mental illness go on aggressive sprees when they are just getting sick with the onset of the disorder and have not been prescribed meds yet.

Well, that got me thinking. I am no expert, but I know people who are; and they tell me that treatment of mental illness in our country is severely lacking. Our government funds many things, but the treatment of mental illness is severely underfunded. Health insurance also does not cover mental illness to the degree of other illnesses.

Then I heard an interview on NPR, which is the thing that began to bring these seemingly disparate subjects together for me. I strongly encourage you to listen to this piece titled, Mental Health Cops Help Reweave Social Safety Net in San Antonio.

According to this piece, “jails hold 10 times as many people with serious mental illness as state hospitals do”, referencing “a recent report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that lobbies for better treatment options for people with mental illness.” To deal with the problem of mental illness and overcrowded jails, “San Antonio and Bexar County have transformed their mental health system into a program considered a model for the rest of the nation. Today, the jails aren’t full, and the city and county have saved $50 million over the past five years.” The San Antonio effort is “called ‘smart justice’ — basically, diverting people with serious mental illness out of jail and into treatment instead.”

$50,000 saved! You must listen to the officer who was trained to deal with mental illness encounter a young man acting weird. The officer admits the man would have been taken to jail years ago, under the old system. In this segment, the officer takes a much different approach, and the difference is dynamic.

Overarching these various things is the idea that “kindness matters” – to borrow a term used recently in an opinion piece in a local newspaper written by…. a police officer. Novel idea!

Not that no police officers are kind, but things are definitely different from when I grew up. A final interview I heard with a 30 year law enforcement veteran revealed something that I did not know. Apparently, police training across the country over the last 30 or more years has taken a more militaristic turn from the “serve and protect” model of local police who walked a beat. This veteran expressed concern over this development, which has been long in the making. Police officers are trained differently, and that training is having an effect.

There is a different way of going about law enforcement that emphasizes “smart justice”. Mental illness is not the cause of all our society’s problems, but it must be addressed. People with mental illness need treatment. Their behavior is more of a manifestation of that mental illness than criminal intent.

Not every punk kid encountered on the street is going to be a career criminal. I was one of those punks. I can still remember the grace I was shown as a kid by local law enforcement who were more father than soldier to me, and I will be forever grateful. I still do not know what I was thinking through those dark years of my life, but I can only liken it to temporary insanity (exaggerating slightly of course).

In fact, if I were “mistreated” in any way, it would have reinforced my sense of “the man” I thought I was fighting back in the day, and I might be still fighting the man today. Now, I am proud to be a contributing part of the community that treated me well when I did not know any better.

I will end with a little pseudo-science and philosophy. Newton observed “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I think that may be true of people and relationships. Force draws one reaction; kindness draws another reaction. We need to be smart about how we deal with societal problems.

Tragic Irony and A Newtown Example

Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

We are too often reminded of the evil that lurks in the human heart, yet we react in shock whenever and wherever it erupts. The examples are the favorite children of the media, the fertile ground for growing readership. We recoil from senseless acts of depravity almost as much as we stop and stare at these train wrecks that are memorialized before us and etched into our collective minds by print and other forms of media. We fixate on them and exorcise them by appropriate judgment and disdain for the insensibility of deranged souls that star in these real life dramas, but these tragedies and our reactions to them also reveal some ironic human tendencies.

We are often not moved to great acts of goodness, except in reaction to tragedies. The more exposure to tragedies, difficulties and hardships, especially ones that do not affect us, the less likely we are to be moved by them to help others. When tragedy hits too close to home, we can be crippled into inaction; while the same tragedy experienced from a greater distance inspires others to action.

Fortunately, for most of us, tragedies happen to “other people” and rarely hit close to our homes. Perhaps unfortunately for those of us so lucky to avoid the direct fall out of a tragedy, the shock waves quickly dissipate as we go on with our daily lives. Not many of us are able to shake off the sleep that sets in with daily routines in a way that affects any change. The emotion fades quickly to a factual memory, stored away with historical dates and numbers and other tidbits.

I dare say that we tend to remain largely unaffected by distant tragedies after the initial  shock wears quickly off.

People are a funny lot. When things happen to others, we are not nearly so affected as when they happen to us, or close to us. When tragedy hits close to home, we tend to be deeply affected, and often deeply changed. The people who have been personally affected by tragedy, difficulty or hardship are the ones who devote themselves to helping others with similar experiences. Charitable organizations are often founded by people affected by the particular issues that the charities are formed to address. In this way, some people reap the fortune of other people’s tragedies.

Almost every tragedy, whether it comes from human action, natural events or other ways, triggers an outpouring of generosity, kindness, good will and even heroism. The Sandy Hook shooting, 9/11 and many other human tragedies are followed by these outpourings of good. It occurs to me that this phenomenon is kind of like Newton’s Third Law of physics (every action has an equal and opposite reaction). For every evil that occurs, people are inspired to react with great goodness.

There is certainly some irony in that. I am not sure why tragedies bring out the best in people. Maybe we are too easily dulled by everyday life into forgetting that people are in need all around us. It takes a catastrophic event, and clear evidence of need, to spur us to good actions. We are shocked into reacting. Tragedies caused by other people, perhaps, spur reaction as if the reaction, itself, can redeem the human race.

No one would wish for tragedy to inspire goodness. Yet, tragedies do inspire goodness. We cannot avoid many natural tragedies like tornados, cancer and things out of our control, but there are things we can do to avoid man-made tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting. A different kind of action is required to avoid these senseless actions by people. It takes pro-action instead of reaction. It takes intentional action in our everyday lives to be kind, generous, sensitive to others and willing to give ourselves to better others around us.

If we all lived intentionally like that every day in our lives, we would not have as many outcast, downtrodden and tortured souls who end up acting on their impulses – and reactions to “evils” they have experienced – that results in tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting.

My inspiration for this piece actually comes out of the Sandy Hook shooting. The inspiration is a fourteen year old boy, Jack Wellman of Newtown, Connecticut, who is living the example of this kind of proactive life. He has turned his own setbacks, difficulties and “tragedies” into opportunities to help others in small, daily ways that have a very positive impact on those around him and his community. What I like about this story is that it overlaps with the Sandy Hook tragedy, but Jack Wellman was living this life before the tragedy occurred, and he continued to live this way in spite of his own struggles with grief that threatened to overwhelm him when tragedy hit his hometown.

Just as tragedy can spur heroic and good reactions, it can cripple action with grief and despair. Jack Wellman stands in contrast to Newton-like reactions we sometimes see and experience (or should I say Newtown-like reactions?). Tragedy did not spur Jack Wellman’s action, and tragedy did not stop him from acting either.

This is the beauty of the human soul. We do not have to be instinctual, reactive beings, though we often are. We have the freedom to rise above those things and be our own agents for action and change. We can all be Jack Wellmans.

If you have time, please follow this link to read the story of Jack Wellman in Sports Illustrated for Kids. Jack Wellman is the 2013 Sports Illustrated Kid of the Year. It is well worth your time.