LE officials and mental health experts agree the nation’s crumbling mental health system has exacerbated the problem, often making officers de facto crisis counselors.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Just weeks before a gunman opened fire at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, authorities said he walked into an FBI office in Alaska, telling agents the government was controlling his mind and that he was having terroristic thoughts. It’s a daily occurrence for law enforcement agencies and authorities say the difficulty is in assessing whether people are reporting a credible threat, whether or whether they need medical help.
“A lot of resources, time and effort are all put into dealing with mentally challenged people and trying to sort through that type of information to find out what’s valid,” said Pat O’Carroll, former supervisor with the Secret Service and executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Relatives of the alleged airport gunman, Esteban Santiago, said his behavior had grown increasingly erratic in the year before the shooting. While there, his family said, he witnessed a bomb explode near two friends.
Santiago’s brother Bryan said at one point his bother requested psychological help but barely received any, and it’s not clear to what extent he was ever diagnosed or treated, if ever, for mental illness. After the incident at the FBI office, Santiago was held for four days for an evaluation and released.
Law enforcement says each hotline tip and visit is documented, but there is usually no record of whether someone appears to be mentally ill because authorities don’t have the expertise to make that determination and don’t want to stigmatize people.