Note: In the aftermath of the Isla Vista tragedy, I started to write this post to tell people about Mental Hygiene Warrants — the procedure for temporarily hospitalizing somebody involuntarily if they are an extreme risk to themselves or others. It’s a last-resort legal tool to get somebody treated and temporarily remove them from the community. The post took an unexpected turn, though. I just went with it.
Skip to the second part if you only want to read about the Mental Hygiene Warrants.
Part 1. Not about Mental Hygiene Warrants
Like many people, my 3-day weekend plans were thwarted. Instead of my typical Brooklyn Memorial Day barbecue-related concerns of UV rays, is-there-pot-in-those-brownies, beckoning bowls of Frito-Lays, and unavoidable small talk with the friend-of-a-friend’s humorless hipsta-husband, I stayed at home, bingeing on the written and recorded ramblings of a 22-year-old murderer, nary a Dorito in sight. My beerkini (read: Budweiser bikini) never saw the light of sun.
He had me at “Elliot Rodgers here. . .” I was a goner. A fruitfly in the jar of petroleum jelly. After Retribution, I watched the 22 YouTube videos. Then read the manifesto. Then the comments, the twitter commentary, the facebook stuff, everything to fill this quagmire of curiosity, horror, outrage, voyeurism; grappling for the comfort of a reductive explanation. I sputtered through so many different phases – ascribing the murders to mental illness, gun access, an idiot mind absorbant to a culture where violence against women and sexism are pervasive, entitlement, gullible law enforcement.
I participated in the Twitter uprising #yesallwomen with women sharing personal experiences and observations about not feeling safe. Yes, all women have experienced an attack to their body, their rights, their safety. (The hashtag is originally a response to #NotAllMen which proliferated last year by men insulted by reports of sexism) Occasionally I emerged to check on Kim’s wedding dress and Kanye’s 11 hour toast, before plopping back into the designs not of Givenchy, but a misogynist sociopath with guns. I read the backlash by Mens Rights Activists who felt they were being unfairly associated with the murderer. I even wrote a semi-popular tweet: “Leave it to #MRAs to convert the tragedy of these murders into THEIR victimhood.”
At times I’ve shamed myself for helping to give such an undeserving parasite an audience and felt a voyeuristic fool for reading and watching such meritless garbage and then felt a meta-fool for empowering his ghost to make me feel foolish.
I’ve admired Elliot Rodger’s cars and hated his full red lips and marveled at the easy flow of his spoken language and how he can go so long without a single “um.” I’ve made the natural comparison to Brett Easton Ellis’ protagonists. I’ve felt the regret of those few people who saw his videos before the deed and who lazily commented that he seemed like a person to be nice to just in case he actually is capable of being the serial killer his demeanor so embodies. I’ve what-if-ed about him resorting to less intrusive behaviors like suicide, and wished a “gut feeling” upon the cops who’d visited his home the month before .
All the while the soundtrack of that cackling laugh has played in the background. The laugh of a villain. Let’s take online threats seriously.
Part 2. About Mental Hygiene Warrants
After any major crime there is always so much Monday Morning Quarterbacking about how the tragedy could have been prevented. This is my contribution: the public should be educated about mental hygiene warrants.
Rodger himself celebrates his trickery after the police found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human being” [sic] and not in need of removal when they were dispatched to his home at his parents’ urging last month. What they did not find, as we know, are the 400 rounds of ammunition, guns, weapons, and the makings of his 141-page manifesto, all undisturbed feet away in his bedroom. Had a mental hygiene warrant been sought instead of (or after) a call to the police, the decision of whether to involuntarily hospitalize him would have been one for a judge and not at the discretion of a couple busy police officers. And while one might argue that he could have fooled a judge equally as easily, the proceeding would have given his parents the opportunity to put on as evidence the suicidal and homicidal videos to which few judges would deny the relief requested.
In most (all?) states there are procedures for involuntarily imposing a mental health examination and inpatient treatment upon a person who is deemed a serious risk. In New York State we call these Mental Hygiene Warrants and the relevant law is Mental Hygiene Law Section 9.43.
When a person with severe psychiatric symptoms is engaging in disorderly conduct or conduct that is likely to result in serious harm to himself (or herself) or another, a person may apply to the court for a warrant demanding that the mentally ill person come to court on a specific day and time. Depending on the evidence presented on the return date, a judge may issue an order directing the person’s hospitalization and mental health assessment. The director of the hospital then determines whether it is necessary to retain the person for further treatment.
In Kings County there is a special Mental Hygiene Court and clerk devoted to adjudicating applications for mental hygiene warrants and involuntary medications and that also addresses applications by the hospital to extend a person’s stay.
Once a warrant is obtained, it is then delivered to the local police precinct so that they can serve the mentally ill person and deliver them to court.
It is free to commence one of these proceedings. In NYC, free representation is available for persons who find themselves the subject of a mental hygiene proceeding.
As with all proceedings it is illegal to commence a mental hygiene warrant proceeding frivolously and the consequences for commencing a meritless one are severe. Involuntarily committing somebody is a huge infraction on somebody’s liberty interests. It is not something to abuse.
A mental hygiene warrant would have gotten him off the streets in time for his plot to be discovered. It’s not to say treatment would have been effective, but it would have removed him during this acute period. There are a million what-ifs. This is just one.
Part 3. I’m going outside