What can we learn from cases like what happened in Santa Barbara?

In light of recent events taking place in the Santa Barbara area of California, this post is going to be fairly long and cover several different topics because it is a problem that we involved in threat assessment are always preaching about, but unfortunately too often find not enough listeners in the pews.

Let me begin by saying that I am very sorry for the families who lost victims in the mass murder scenario. This would also include the parents of the perpetrator of this crime because all too often we have found in our line of work that many of the parents of those with mental disorders try their very best to try and solve their child’s issues but get little assistance from society in accomplishing that end. It appears (judging by the limited information I have seen in the media) in this particular scenario that even though Elliot’s parents had resources they were continually frustrated in their attempts to work with him. (I am in no way excusing Rodger Elliot’s actions. He is fully responsible for what he did.) However, if you do not have a child or sibling that has a severe mental disorder, thank your lucky stars because a troubled family member can easily drain a families resources as well as beat them down both emotionally and physically. Of course, each situation is different, and there are parents that make little or no effort to assist a child in need; or worse have added to that person’s malady.

First topic concerning this and other incidents like it. Depending on which study you look at there are about 270 to 310 million firearms owned by Americans. About 100 million or so are handguns. The number of first time buyers of firearms-primarily handguns is on the increase with woman appearing to be the largest new gun purchasers. In 2012 about 8855 persons scummed to gun violence in the United States, the first uptick in the four years prior to that. Numerous other people were murdered in United States by a variety of other ways, autos, knives, bludgeoning devices, poison, etc. As a semi-retired homicide detective I have seen many people killed in a variety of ways, I would agree that the tool of choice is oftentimes a firearm. However, I will tell you if ever asked that is exactly what a firearm is a tool that is utilized, the fault lies with the person pulling the trigger.

You will notice that when I talked about Elliot’s murderous rampage, I did not refer to it as has the vast majority of the press and others as a mass shooting. Number one it is not a mass shooting. Elliot stabbed his first three victims (his roommates) to death. Without talking to him I doubt that people will know exactly why he did it that way, but one can guess that he was looking for a way to dispatch them as stealthy and quietly as he could. It would be interesting to know where the victims where stabbed and how many times. Most stabbings are construed to indicate things like rage, a personable attack, etc.However, if the stab wound was more surgical designed to quickly kill the victim it could be done as previously indicated to take out the victim quietly. Where as  shooting someone; allows the shooter a greater chance of escape, and a lower risk of damage or injury due to the fact they are actually not usually making physical contact with the victim or victims. Elliot also used his BMW to try and dispatch another victim by running him over. [By the way, concerning the handguns Elliot had. He had purchased the handguns leagally in California. He had gone through the required waiting period, and the Cal. Dept. Of Justice had run a record check on him. Elliot’s check did not show any criminal activity, no restraining orders, nor did it show any mental health components. He had never bee arrested and processed for a 72 hour hold under 5150 of the Welfare and Institutions code in California. If he had he could not have purchased the firearm. So if the California State Legislature, wants to try and develop some type of index for persons who are undergoing psychiatric evaluation on a voluntary basis thus not allowing them to purchase a firearm, there may be some inherit issues. One of the primary things I can think of is that if any individual knows that he or she will not be able to purchase or have in their possession a firearm because they are seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, do you think they will actively seek out therapy?

Second topic: Mental health. In the United States mental health coverage is abysmal. The number of beds and mental health facilities have declined tremendously over the years leaving the streets, jails and prisons the areas that are poorly tasked with taking care of these individuals. If an individual is lucky enough to be under treatment for whatever mental condition they may be suffering the vast majority of patients are treated with medications, which in too many cases the patient refuses to self-administer or worse decides to try other things like alcohol, non-prescribed pharmaceuticals or street drugs to self-medicate.  In my opinion, psychiatry does not really have any cures for most of these disorders primarily because they usually evolve around issues of brain chemistry. My hat is off to the nueroscientists that are involved in trying to probe those areas and develop surgical solutions instead of a parade of Meds. to assist those in need. However until these incredible break-threws manifest themselves, our society as a whole needs to better house and care for those that are impaired.  The perpetrator of this mass killing was reportedly not taking his medications. I also do not know if he was expressing wanting to harm others due to his misdirected anger to his therapist, but if that was the case they had a duty to report same via the proper channels.

Third topic :violent video games. Concerning this incident and others like it many an “expert” has been interviewed concerning how violent video games may have by a catalyst for Elliot and others violence. Much research of late has been done on this. Many studies indicate that those that play violent video games on a continual basis, primarily teens can become addicted to the usage of these games; as well as “can develop antisocial behavior,” which can also cause them to become more disconnected from reality. (The DSM-V, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders recently added a new disorder entitled Internet Use Disorder, IUD, which also includes, the use of Internet Video Games.) I have experienced many youth including my two boys when they were younger having to be weaned off their violent games due to personality changes we experience with them in regard to anger, etc. One of the primary reasons for this was because most teens brains are not fully wired. In fact, they don’t get their circuits completely developed until they are in their mid-twenties at least. Now that my boys are in that period of their lives, we do not see the anger issues or the actual withdrawals symptoms that we initially saw when we removed them from playing said games for a couple weeks at a time. This does not mean that all kids who play video games are going to be serial killers or mass murders, but it is and will continue to be a problem; especially for those that are more susceptible to the suggestions of violence perpetrated by continual use of the game. We have seen kids get desensitized to violence in general. Which we believe is not a good thing. In 2004, I assisted on an murder investigation where the suspect, a 24 year old male, with a very high IQ,, from a upper middle class family, occasionally utilized methamphetamine, had problems trying to interact with girls, and continuously, played a video game that discussed ancient Chinese strategy on the battle field. According to his friends and family he was “addicted” to the game. This subject had issues with his mother, which our investigation revealed was completely dedicated to trying to assist her son to get better, but in the process tended to hover over her son (the murderer.) One day he closed all the blinds in the house, and would not answer the phone when his mother called from work. He knew she would come home to check on his welfare. He then went into their master bedroom, got a shotgun, loaded it, and waited on the floor until she came home. When she opened the door of the bedroom he executed her. When I arrived on the scene, I was taken by one of the other detectives to the doorway just outside of the master bedroom. There on the floor was a lock of the victim’s hair wrapped with a ribbon. When I interviewed the suspect, who continually referred to the tactics of the game as those that had helped him devise a plan of attack on his mother, securing the house, lying in wait, etc., he said that he had taken a lock of his “enemies” (his mother) as a souvenir of his conquest of battle.

Fourth Topic: The value of threat assessment: Just because we are involved in threat assessment doesn’t mean we view it as a panacea when it comes to stopping violent crime. We realize that it combined with other processes need to be utilized to be as an effective tool as possible when trying to stop violence. However, we do know that threat assessment does and will continue to work better as it is enhanced. Law enforcement needs to have at the very least one specific individual if not a team tasked with utilizing threat assessment to evaluate a number of potential crime scenarios including something like what transpired in greater Santa Barbara. Police must be open to looking at non-criminal behavior in order to evaluate and hopefully prevent a criminal event. Example: Example: Say that a subject’s  roommates came to the local sheriff’s department and talked to a desk officer commenting that the subject had been acting strangely, and was talking about being frustrated and angry at girls that had rebuked him and that his anger and resentment seemed to be escalating. If the desk officer/deputy had been trained in just the basics of threat assessment, and their was a protocol in place to get the basic information about said subject and what the roommate was relating he or she could then forward that information back to a detective or investigator assigned and well-trained in threat assessment. The subject in question would then be placed  into a file database. The investigator would then run a check to see if anyone else had been concerned about the subject in question. A firearms record check could be run to see if and when the subject had purchased any guns, The investigator could go on the Internet to see what if any postings the subject had been making. (Of course it would help if the desk officer had asked the roommate some of those questions.) Then if the subject started looking more and more like a possible threat, the investigator could then make an in person contact, possibly taking a mental health professional with him or her. This is how this works. Threat assessment is only as good as the information gathered. Citizens have to be made aware that it is ok to contact the police. Law enforcement has to become better trained and not routinely disregard what citizens bring to them. My partner and I have always trained others to work the small stuff because it can and oftentimes does lead to much bigger things. 


Hopefully, this post has not been too long winded. Pay attention to your surroundings and stay safe.


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