Editorial: Intervene earlier against mental dangers
The families and loved ones of two slain police officers know too painfully just what the term “first responder” means, and that their duty puts them in the front lines of dangerous situations.
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The families and loved ones of two slain police officers know too painfully just what the term “first responder” means, and that their duty puts them in the front lines of dangerous situations. They are overcome by their grief, but everyone else needs now to reckon with what Sunday’s tragic shooting and fires near Waikiki has taught Hawaii, yet again.
The community has not come to grips with its mental health needs, meaning that it does not effectively deliver the mental illness treatment that can help to stabilize a person at risk of losing all control.
Officers Tiffany Enriquez and Kaulike Kalama died Sunday when, responding to an assault call at Diamond Head, the suspected assailant shot them.
The Hibiscus Drive address was one that Honolulu Police Department already knew well, remembering its earlier encounters with the alleged shooter, 69-year-old Jerry Hanel; he and one other resident
remain unaccounted for after the ensuing building fires. Lives have been lost, and families shattered.
The case is still being investigated, but the questions have arisen among the public: How could this man’s mental health have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of being capable of this violence?
As Police Chief Susan Ballard acknowledged Sunday in addressing the tragedy, mental health service is a weakness in the social safety net. HPD patrols have been thrust into so many encounters with mental illness in the public, especially with the city’s acute homelessness crisis, that the department has added intervention to its special training.
Plainly, in investigating this case, the department will be reviewing how it’s been deploying its skills in this arena. The video record from past encounters does show signs of a problem that would set off alarm bells, and the alleged shooter’s various brushes with the residents were enough to support temporary restraining orders being issued.
But it’s already clear to professionals in the field that this is a struggle not only for the police, but for the community at large. The road to mental illness treatment for people caught up in law enforcement is a long and winding one, and some way to shorten it must be found.
Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, advocated for years to improve the system, largely because many among IHS homeless clientele suffer from mental illness among other health problems.
The result was legislation enabling assisted community treatment, which provides a protocol for directing a person to get mental health evaluation and treatment if they are found to be a danger to themselves and others. The law has been tweaked in the past few years and has begun to have results.
But too often, she said, the general public hesitates to act assertively when they see repeated, erratic behaviors. And even when they do call police, the effort doesn’t always lead to a court order for treatment. A psychiatric review board would be able to assess a patient with less delay; some states have “court clinics” to direct treatment, Mitchell said.
Further system reform of this kind would be a wise pursuit for the Legislature.
Expansion now underway at the Hawaii State Hospital is needed for treatment capacity, but the state also must ensure that when the patient is released, he or she finds community treatment support as well.
“My hope is that this incident would help people understand the importance of finding a solution,” Mitchell said.
There is so much to be done, and the slow advances being made are insufficient responses to a problem that can only become more deadly. That responsibility falls not only on police, but on all who live here.