Not-So-Hidden Factor in D.C. Violence: Mental Ills

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Are law enforcers and public health authorities doing as well as they should in handling cases involving violence by the mentally ill? The Washington, D.C., City Paper examines this question in a cover story. The paper notes that recent statistics showned that the nation’s capital was witnessing the sharpest spike in homicides since the late ’80s. Up 40 percent in two years, homicides were occurring with such frequency that by the end of the year, the final tally threatened to reach 325–almost one a day and the most since 1996.

Aides to Police Chief Charles Ramsey, defending the department’s performance, pointed to these cases: A 49-year-old woman who allegedly set a fire that killed her elderly aunt; a 60-year-old man who allegedly stabbed his mother to death; a 45-year-old woman who was charged with pushing her drinking companion over a third-floor railing and killing him; and A 46-year-old man who allegedly shot and killed his grandmother and wounded his brother. “You could be next door and you couldn’t have stopped some of these things,” Executive Assistant Chief of Police Michael Fitzgerald told the Washington Post.

The debate followed a predictable pattern, with the police chief arguing that stepped-up patrols wouldn’t have a great impact and his detractors saying they would. The terms of the discussion, too, were familiar; both sides talked about police service areas, foot patrols, staffing levels, and so on. Yet no one bothered to highlight the one factor that unifies most of the “unpreventable” murders cited by Ramsey: mental illness.

Washington is perhaps the nation’s premier destination for nut cases. The region just happens to house many of the institutions that pop up in delusional fantasies–the CIA, the FBI, the White House. What better way to bring your conspiracy theories to the world than to make a splash at their front doors, the City Paper asks. Unfortunately for area residents, mentally ill people capable enough to get to D.C. to try to press their cases with the president can be very sick and very dangerous. Paranoid schizophrenics, in particular, seem especially attracted to Washington. A 1990 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that men who had been detained by the Secret Service after showing up at the White House were between two and five times more likely to be arrested later for violent crimes than the general population. And where does the Secret Service take these people if they aren’t charged with a crime? Usually to a D.C. homeless shelter.


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