FL Airport Shooting Shows Police Mental Health Challenges

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A few weeks before a gunman opened fire at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, he walked into an FBI office in Alaska, telling agents the government was controlling his mind and that he was having terroristic thoughts. Such incidents are daily occurrences for law enforcement agencies, and authorities say the difficulty is in assessing whether people are reporting a credible threat and whether they need medical help, the Associated Press reports. “A lot of resources, time and effort are all put into dealing with mentally challenged people and trying to sort through that type of information to find out what’s valid,” said Pat O’Carroll of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. Relatives of alleged airport gunman Esteban Santiago said his behavior had grown increasingly erratic in the year before the shooting.

Law enforcement says each hotline tip and visit is documented, but there is usually no record of whether someone appears to be mentally ill because authorities don’t have the expertise to make that determination and don’t want to stigmatize people. “There are times of lucidness and you can’t just reject everything the person says. Even if they have a frequent track record of calling up, they are going to be given the same amount of attention … so it is even more time consuming,” O’Carroll said. Law enforcement officials and mental health experts agree the nation’s crumbling mental health system has exacerbated the problem, often making officers de facto crisis counselors. In most states, standards for involuntary hospitalization are stringent and require that someone be a threat to themselves or someone else. “It’s not an easy problem,” said St. Charles Parish, La., Sheriff Greg Champagne, president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “There’s no simple fix to say the FBI should’ve just locked this guy away because he’s hearing voices.”

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