Pre­dict­ing vi­o­lence tough for men­tal health ex­perts

Sus­pects gave few clues in Cal­i­for­nia, Florida

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Jorge L. Or­tiz

In the two dead­li­est shoot­ings in the U.S. this year, the ac­cused gun­man had dis­played warn­ing signs be­fore his killing spree.

Nikolas Cruz demon­strated an ob­ses­sion with guns and was the sub­ject of more than a dozen po­lice vis­its at home be­fore he al­legedly went on a Fe­bru­ary shoot­ing ram­page that left 17 dead at his for­mer high school in Park­land, Florida.

Ian David Long, who au­thor­i­ties say burst into the Border­line Bar and Grill in Thou­sand Oaks, Cal­i­for­nia, late Wed­nes­day night and gunned down 12 peo­ple be­fore ap­par­ently tak­ing his own life, was found to be “act­ing a lit­tle ir­ra­tionally’’ when po­lice were sum­moned to his house in April.

Yet, Cruz and Long were both deemed by of­fi­cials not to be a dan­ger to them­selves or oth­ers, and they were nei­ther com­mit­ted for treat­ment nor for­bid­den from pos­sess­ing weapons.

Amid the grief over yet an­other mass shoot­ing, there’s also a sense of frus­tra­tion over the fail­ure to pick up on those cues.

Men­tal health ex­perts say that, in the ab­sence of ex­pressed cred­i­ble threats, pre­dict­ing vi­o­lent be­hav­ior presents a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge.

“The abil­ity to iden­tify an in­di­vid­ual’s first vi­o­lent act is ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult – I would say it’s im­pos­si­ble,’’ said Steven Hoge, a foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist and clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity. “Be­cause what men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als bring to the ta­ble is the abil­ity to iden­tify risks and trig­gers to past vi­o­lent acts and to try to fig­ure out how to mit­i­gate or avoid those in­ci­dents in the fu­ture.’’

Hoge warned against the com­mon per­cep­tion that the men­tal health sys­tem should iden­tify dan­ger­ous peo­ple and get them off the streets. Even though they can be­gin the process of in­vol­un­tary com­mit­ment when they de­ter­mine some­one to be dan­ger­ous, he said, the role of men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als is to pro­vide care.

“Psy­chi­a­trists ex­ist in this world to treat peo­ple for men­tal ill­ness,’’ he said. “If there are mea­sures that need to be taken be­cause there are con­cerns about fu­ture vi­o­lence, that’s in the purview of the po­lice.’’

Ven­tura County sher­iff’s deputies had men­tal health spe­cial­ists eval­u­ate Long when they were called to his house in April. They did not pur­sue fur­ther ac­tion.

San Diego-based Clark Clip­son, a foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist since 1991, said mak­ing those as­sess­ments in the field can be es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult.

Clip­son usu­ally eval­u­ates per­sons who have been charged or con­victed of a crime, so he has po­lice re­ports, crim­i­nal his­to­ries, psy­cho­log­i­cal test re­sults and other data on which to base his con­clu­sions. That in­for­ma­tion typ­i­cally is not avail­able in field calls.

“With a threat assess­ment, where you have maybe an em­ployee or a kid in a school, in those sit­u­a­tions you have to have in­for­ma­tion like, ‘Does the per­son have a men­tal dis­or­der? Do they have ac­cess to weapons? Do they have thoughts of harm­ing them­selves or oth­ers?’ ’’ Clip­son said.

“Some­times you can find those things out by peo­ple who know the in­di­vid­ual or through so­cial me­dia or things they’ve writ­ten or posted, but some peo­ple just don’t ex­press those things.’’

One use­ful tool that has emerged in the wake of the re­peated mas­sacres – the Border­line in­ci­dent marked the 307th time in 311 days this year that some­one shot or killed at least four peo­ple in the same in­stance – has been the in­creased ac­cep­tance of so-called red flag laws.

The pol­icy al­lows fam­ily mem­bers or law-en­force­ment agents to seek a court or­der that tem­po­rar­ily re­stricts ac­cess to guns for the per­sons in ques­tion when they’re con­sid­ered a dan­ger to them­selves or oth­ers.

Only five states had such laws in their books be­fore 2018, but eight have adopted them this year. Florida joined the ranks the month.

Cal­i­for­nia has had a red flag law since 2014, but it’s un­clear whether Long’s mother, Colleen, who lived with him, tried to have it ap­plied to her son. Po­lice say the for­mer Marine ma­chine gun­ner and com­bat vet­eran may have had post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

JAY CALDERON/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Peo­ple mourn the Cal­i­for­nia shoot­ing vic­tims dur­ing a vigil Thurs­day at the Thou­sand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

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