Think Progress—New California Law Seeks To Reduce Violent Encounters Between Cops And Mentally Ill People

Think Progress
JANUARY 8, 2015

A new California law encourages officers to consult the state’s firearm ownership database before they perform what is known as a “welfare check” so that they are aware if the individual they are checking in on is armed. Officers typically conduct welfare checks of people perceived to be a threat to themselves or others. Many of these individuals are people with mental illnesses, and their encounters with police can sometimes escalate into violence. Indeed, in one incident that is currently before the Supreme Court, officers were called to assist a schizophrenic woman who was perceived as dangerous, and wound up shooting her six times.

The California law seeks to reduce the likelihood that these encounters end in tragedy. Yet it could be undermined by a non-comprehensive firearms database and the fact that officers may lack training in how to interact with some individuals who have mental illnesses.

Senate Bill 505 provides that “[e]very law enforcement agency shall develop, adopt, and implement written policies and standard protocols pertaining to the best manner to conduct a ‘welfare check,’ when the inquiry into the welfare or well-being of the person is motivated by a concern that the person may be a danger to himself or herself or to others.” The policy protocols should encourage officers to consult the Department of Justice Automated Firearms System, in order to determine whether or not the individual in question poses a threat.

The bill was first introduced last year by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-CA), in response to the Isla Vista shooting spree that killed seven people near UC-Santa Barbara. The shooter, Elliot Rodger, had a history of mental illness and posted “disturbing” videos that were flagged by police. Officers who were called to conduct a welfare check of Rodger weeks before the shooting spree did not conclude that he posed a threat, so they did not proceed with a weapons check. Jackson contends that the law would not necessarily prevent another massacre like the one in Isla Vista, although it could provide officers with “life-saving” information before they proceed with welfare checks.

Nevertheless, the bill has significant limitations, and Jeffrey Butts, Director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, believes that the law is predicated on a number of assumptions about what kinds of systems are already in place to track firearms. “One problem with the new law is that it presumes a good firearms database that’s up-to-date,” Butts told ThinkProgress, “It also presumes that there’s some meaningful connection between the registration of a purchase and the presence of those weapons in that home, at that time.”

To mitigate these concerns, the law could call for an investigation of the database’s accessibility and efficiency. Additionally, the law could actually require officers to consult the firearms database, rather than merely encouraging them to do so.

During welfare checks of people with mental illness like Rodger, Butts also thinks that a law requiring mental health professionals to accompany officers would be beneficial. Counties in California have the option to use co-responder teams, as in Los Angeles and San Diego County, but there is no obligation to do so. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, specialized police responses to mentally ill individuals often lead to effective treatment. More than 90 percent of all mentally ill people do not exhibit violent tendencies. Moreover, while it may be useful to know if the subject of a welfare check has a firearm, possession of one does not often indicate a desire to commit a violent crime. Therefore, a more useful goal is targeting the specific needs of mentally ill persons, as opposed to preemptively criminalizing them.

Nevertheless, Butts asserts that California’s new law has some merit. “At least [they] encourage diligence before walking into a situation,” he said.

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