Colorado Law Made It Possible For Court to Order Psychiatric Evaluation of James Holmes before Aurora Shootings, According To Treatment Advocacy Center

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State law authorizes county courts to order the evaluation of individuals who appear to have mental illness and who may be dangerous to others or themselves. Whether a petition was sought after Holmes' psychiatrist became concerned he could harm others is unknown.

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“With every new mass killing, the cry goes up, ‘How can these tragedies have been prevented?’” Fuller said. “We know there are tools to prevent them. As a society, we just have to decide whether we have the will to use them.

Once accused killer James Holmes appeared to be a danger to others, any individual aware of his condition could have asked the county court where he lived to order an evaluation of whether he needed to be involuntarily hospitalized for treatment, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that specializes in mental health treatment law reform and implementation.

Holmes’ condition so alarmed University of Colorado psychiatrist Lynne Fenton, who had seen him as a patient, that she alerted the university’s “Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment” (BETA) team to his potential danger, according to the Denver Post ("James Holmes referred to University of Colorado assessment team, sources say" Aug. 2). Whether a petition for court-ordered evaluation was filed with the Arapahoe County Court has not been reported.

“There is widespread misunderstanding about what can be done to intervene when an individual’s mental health appears to be deteriorating to the point of dangerousness,” said Doris A. Fuller, executive director of the Virginia-based group that works to eliminate barriers to treatment for severe mental illness.

Every state has laws providing for court-ordered hospitalization based upon the presence of danger to self or others, she said. Colorado’s law recognizes the need to intervene by providing that “any individual may petition the court … alleging that there is a person who appears to have a mental illness and … appears to be a danger to others….” If the court finds the petition credible, it may order the individual detained in a hospital for up to 72 hours of evaluation.

Fuller said ignorance of such laws, misperception that danger must be “imminent” for commitment to be an option, and disinformation about the association between severe mental illness and violence leave families and communities vulnerable. Although the vast majority of people with mental illness are no more dangerous than the general public, the statistics are quite different for the small subset whose illness is both severe and untreated, she said.

“There are known risk factors for violence associated with mental illness, and there are legal mechanisms for protecting communities from such violence,” said Fuller. “As long as the risks and the mechanisms are ignored, dismissed or minimized, we will continue to see tragedies like the Aurora theater shootings.

Years of dismantling the safety net for individuals with the most serious mental illnesses further compounds the problem, she said.

  •     Colorado eliminated 33% of its public psychiatric beds from 2005-2010, leaving the state with barely 10 state hospital beds for every 100,000 people, according to a Treatment Advocacy Center study of hospital bed trends released 18 hours before the shootings. Only 14 states provide fewer beds for their residents.
  •     Individuals with severe mental illness in Colorado are more than four times as likely to be jailed as to receive treatment for severe mental illness in state, private or general hospitals, according to a 2010 Treatment Advocacy Center study of the criminalization of mental illness.

“With every new mass killing, the cry goes up, ‘How can these tragedies have been prevented?’” Fuller said. “We know there are tools to prevent them. As a society, we just have to decide whether we have the will to use them.”

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Brian Stettin, Policy Director, Colorado legislative advocate

Doris A. Fuller, Executive Director
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