Our nation and community have focused on recent mass murders and the need for effective prevention and response strategies. Meaningful steps to reduce mass killings requires improving measures to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill; plugging gaps in our mental health system that result in repeat instances of violence by those with serious mental health issues; and an effective law enforcement and first-responder approach to instances of "active-shooters."
Although brave citizens are often the first to risk or sacrifice their lives to stop mass killings, instances of "active-shooters" require an immediate law enforcement response. In recent years, the sheriff's office and many local police departments trained and equipped officers to do just that. Although imprudent to reveal specific tactics, the sheriff's office response protocols are constructed around nationally recognized best practices and involve the ability of every deputy to immediately respond to "active-shooters." Highly-trained special response and crisis negotiation teams are trained to support this immediate response.
As school children have frequently been victims of mass killings, the sheriff's office has dedicated resources to increase the presence of deputies in and around school campuses and have worked with nearby police departments to do the same. The sheriff's office has also coordinated both tabletop and live exercises with fire and school officials that are designed to test capabilities and better prepare first-responders to respond to instances of active-shooters.
Law enforcement encounters violent and dangerously mentally ill people every day. Unfortunately, limited resources in the mental health system result in many of the mentally ill either being released or winding up in the county jail.
The sheriff's office on average houses 50-65 violent mentally ill offenders a day in jail. While best efforts are made to provide diagnosis and treatment, resource limitations and legal constraints frequently do not result in effective stabilization.
State funding cuts have limited the sheriff's office ability to move the violently mentally ill to Western State Hospital. The mental health system assigns a low priority on involuntarily committing those already housed in the county jail. The result is many dangerously mentally ill people are released back into the community without effective treatment and soon commit new acts of violence.
The case of former Bellingham resident Isaac Zamora is illustrative of gaps that exist in the criminal justice and mental health systems. Despite a long history of criminal violence and mental illness, Zamora was not in custody when he acquired a firearm and randomly shot and killed six people, including a deputy sheriff, just feet south of the county line.
Federal firearms laws strictly prohibit dangerous criminals and those adjudicated mentally ill from acquiring or possessing firearms. While the law provides stiff penalties for doing so, thousands of criminals falsify federal firearms purchase forms every year. Very few are federally prosecuted.
Last year a Bellingham felon with a history of rendering death threats lied about his crimes to acquire a firearm and ammunition. Despite renewed threats, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute him in part because of his "mental illness." The recently announced heightened priority federal prosecutors will give these crimes is welcomed news. Last week the FBI adopted a sheriff's office case of a convicted violent felon with obvious mental health issues who possessed firearms and ammunition.
While solutions may seem obvious, the reality is that we are living in times where law enforcement, prosecutors as well as the corrections and mental health systems have faced huge budget reductions that limit the ability to effectively implement more effective strategies. If we are serious about preventing mass murder, it is time to re-think priorities towards effective public safety.
Bill Elfo is the Whatcom County Sheriff.
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