UC killings: Sick, angry men must be flagged

The News TribuneMay 28, 2014 

Stopping killers like Elliot Rodger isn’t as simple as passing a law. But sharing more information about them – before they blow up – could help.

The 22-year-old berserker who killed six people in Santa Barbara on Friday nurtured uncontrollable rage – at blonde women, at attractive men, at the world in general. While coming across as a quiet loner, he was contemplating slaughter in great detail.

Someone with X-ray vision would realize Rodger had no business buying or possessing the semi-automatic pistols he used to kill three of his victims. But it’s hard to picture realistic firearms restrictions that would have prevented these killings. Rodger purchased his guns legally in a state with some of the tightest gun-control laws in the nation.

Rodger also killed three others with a knife and tried to kill yet more by ramming them with his car. Once he went over the edge, he was going to kill, period.

There might be fewer such rampages if law enforcement weren’t an extreme last resort when dealing with severe mental illness.

In this case, everyone around Rodger seemed to have the best of intentions. None had a crystal ball to warn of the looming catastrophe. But killers like him might be flagged more often if the psychotherapy profession were a little less focused on patient privacy and a little more focused on public safety.

Men who suddenly erupt in frenzy of bloodshed often fit a profile. First of all, they are men – virtually all rampage killings are carried out by males. They have tendencies toward violence. They tend to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are sick: Many suffer from severe mental illness, often schizophrenia (though the illness by itself is not a risk factor). There are red flags, and they frequently aren’t subtle.

With the exception of drug abuse – which may yet turn up in this case – Rodger was a match. He’d been in treatment for years, but had refused to take his anti-psychotic medication. He was seething with rage.

His mother was smart. Last month, she tipped off police to his scary blog posts. But when they came to his door, he put on a convincingly harmless act and evaded involuntary commitment.

Rodger’s psychologist may have acted with utmost professionalism – there’s no evidence to the contrary. But for the profession in general, privacy is close to sacrosanct. As one national authority, Kevin Cameron, put it, “Many professionals have let the pendulum swing so far that they believe their primary mandate is to protect privacy at all costs.”

California law requires therapists to inform law enforcement of potentially explosive patients. Washington should adopt that law, too.

But no law will work if the likes of Rodger aren’t actually reported, and if police aren’t trained to give more credence to alarmed relatives than to brief, deceptive performances on the doorstep. When psychiatric patients start to turn deadly, ignorance of severe mental illness is not bliss.

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