May 29, 2014 at 7:37 am

Calif. rampage reignites mental health law debate

Killings show limits of involuntary confinement laws

A couple embrace before a memorial service this week for the victims and families from Friday's rampage on the U-C Santa Barbara campus. (Chris Carlson / AP)

Los Angeles – — Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage near Santa Barbara has tragically exposed the limitations of involuntary-commitment laws that allow authorities to temporarily confine people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Three weeks before he stabbed and shot six people to death and then apparently took his own life, the 22-year-old sometime college student was questioned by sheriff’s deputies outside his apartment and was able to convince them he was calm, courteous and no threat to anyone. The officers had been sent by local health officials after Rodger’s family expressed concern about him.

“He just didn’t meet the criteria for any further intervention,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “He was able to make a very convincing story that there was no problem, that he wasn’t going to hurt himself or anyone else.”

Like many other states, California has a law intended to identify and confine dangerously unstable people before they can do harm. It allows authorities to hold people in a mental hospital for up to 72 hours for observation.

To trigger it, there must be evidence a person is suicidal, intent on hurting others or so “gravely disabled” as to be unable to care for himself.

In Michigan, an individual can be involuntarily admitted to a hospital for mental health treatment for up to 72 hours, as long as they meet the state Mental Health Code’s definition of a “person requiring treatment.” A person might not meet the requirements, even if they’re severely mentally ill.

Michigan Mental Health Code shows an individual can be involuntarily committed if they can be reasonably expected to physically harm themselves or others in the near future, and their mental illness prevents them from taking care of basic needs, such food and shelter. Alternatively, they can qualify if they’re so mentally ill they don’t know they need treatment.

In Rodger’s case, it’s not clear whether the law was too porous, if deputies were inadequately trained or if they simply weren’t provided enough information to ferret out how deeply troubled Rodger had become.

Rodger had also been in therapy for years, and it’s not known what, if anything, authorities knew about his psychiatric care.

Still, it’s not clear whether involuntarily committing Rodger would have averted the bloodshed. In many cases, people must be freed after 72 hours.

“That’s the debate. That’s the issue: liberty versus forced treatment,” said Tony Beliz, a retired deputy director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

Detroit News Staff Writer Karen Bouffard contributed.

Rodger (AP)