Another Needless Death

Thursday, May 18, 2006

FAIRFAX COUNTY Master Police Officer Michael E. Garbarino died early yesterday morning, the second officer killed in the shooting rampage outside the Sully District police station last week. The 23-year veteran of the force, who helped start the movement that led to its unionization, was shot five times while sitting in his police cruiser. He and the other victim, Detective Vicky O. Armel, are the only officers shot to death in the line of duty in the history of the Fairfax County police department.

It remains unclear why their assailant, Michael W. Kennedy, was free to go on such a rampage. The details of his psychiatric history are still unknown to the public. Everything that is known, however, suggests that he was in desperate need of help he did not get. Mr. Kennedy was free on bond on a carjacking charge in Maryland; that followed his escape from a mental treatment facility that he had checked himself into. He had been arrested in Virginia for shooting the family dog and had told police he was suicidal. He was exhibiting delusional thinking.

Mr. Kennedy appears to have been in one of those downward spirals that all too often for the mentally ill result in death or injury either to themselves or other people. In this case it was both, for Mr. Kennedy also died in the shootout. Yet somehow, he remained sufficiently unsupervised to haul a cache of weapons to a police station and open fire. One of the obvious lessons is that the easy availability of assault weapons represents endless numbers of tragedies waiting to happen. Another is that America ignores the needs of the mentally ill at its peril.

A newly released study of schizophrenic violence illustrates this point starkly. The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, followed a sample of 1,410 schizophrenics. In a six-month period, 16 percent of them were involved in minor violence and 4 percent in "serious violence." Yet many states, including Virginia, make it impossibly hard to compel treatment; Virginia requires a showing that the person presents an "imminent" threat of harm to himself or others. Around the country, an odd coalition of civil libertarians touting the rights of the mentally ill and budget hawks eager to cut services has created a situation in which people who need help yet are in no position to make informed decisions for themselves don't get help. Then they commit crimes.

The concern for their rights, in practice, represents a cruel kind of joke: a right to exist in a delusional state and then get prosecuted severely for the damage. The cost savings are mythical, too. Society pays in so many ways for failing to take the problem of mental illness seriously. One of those ways is tragic killings, like those of Detective Armel and Officer Garbarino.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company