SINCE the Connecticut tragedy, the school safety debate in Oklahoma has mostly focused on increasing the number of armed officers in schools or allowing school personnel to carry a firearm. So far, the debate has largely overlooked the issue of mental illness, other than Gov. Mary Fallin's reasonable call to increase mental health funding.
Thanks to the Oklahoma Commission on School Security, the focus may shift. The group's recommendations include an emphasis on providing school officials with mental health training to identify those who may pose a risk to others. It's a good start, but more could be done. In recent weeks, commission members also discussed whether Oklahoma should enact its own version of Kendra's Law, a New York statute making it easier for judges to force some individuals to undergo treatment.
In Oklahoma, emergency detention is allowed for individuals who appear mentally ill and are believed to be an imminent danger to themselves or someone else. Unfortunately, officials often must wait until an individual has harmed others or placed others in harm's way. Under Kendra's Law, people could be involuntarily committed for up to 72 hours if a person with apparent mental illness has a repeated history of hospitalizations or incarceration and/or fails to maintain treatment.
Mental health professionals say such laws can provide leverage that prompts patients to undergo treatment they otherwise resist. Involuntary commitment could be crucial to preventing tragedies: An estimated 50 percent of those with severe mental illness don't recognize they are ill, and therefore don't volunteer for treatment. Furthermore, state mental health Commissioner Terri White says 70 percent of Oklahomans needing treatment for mental illness don't receive it.
Because no one knows how many Oklahomans could be detained under Kendra's Law, cost concerns led the commission to propose less expensive, intermediate steps as an alternative. This is understandable, but Oklahoma legislators should consider going further. Although only a small fraction of the mentally ill becomes dangerous to others, it doesn't mean greater vigilance is unwarranted. A 2011 paper by Steven P. Segal at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded a third of the state-to-state variation in homicide rates was attributable to the strength or weakness of involuntary civil-commitment laws.
Clearly, appropriate use of involuntary commitment has the potential to prevent some mass shootings and similar tragedies. It should not be arbitrarily declared off-limits.
If Oklahoma officials engage in this debate, this state won't be an outlier. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also has called for rewriting and streamlining his state's laws on mental health commitments. One change he endorsed would rewrite the burden-of-proof requirement in a mental health hold so a patient could be committed if the individual is believed to represent a “substantial probability” of being a threat rather than the harder-to-prove “imminent danger.”
In his State of the State speech in January, Hickenlooper said, “It's not enough to prevent dangerous people from getting weapons. We have to do a better job of identifying and helping people who are a threat to themselves and others.”
Unlike many Democrats who used the Connecticut tragedy solely to push gun control, Hickenlooper was willing to defy stereotype and endorse preventive measures aimed at the mentally ill. If he's willing to tackle that challenge, there's no reason law-and-order Republicans in Oklahoma can't do the same.