James Holmes is in custody for allegedly killing 12 people and injuring 58 others when he opened fire in a packed midnight screening of the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora Colorado. Dressed in full riot gear, Holmes allegedly entered from an emergency exit in the front right corner of the theater before releasing something that witnesses identify as tear gas or a smoke bomb. From there, he allegedly sprayed the sold-out theater with a storm of bullets, injuring and killing both adults and children. Holmes, sporting hair dyed red, reportedly told arresting officers he was "The Joker" in apparent reference to a well known villain in the Batman series.
In a previous post, Someone Knew, I pointed out that the shooter was likely known to be having mental health problems. Apparently his school did know and and he was in fact the patient of Dr. Lynne Fenton, Head of the Campus Mental Health Service and a member of the UC Campus Threat Assessment team.
It is my hope that the fall-out from this epic fail of the mental health system will result in significant changes to both mental health law and procedures used when dealing with potentially dangerous mentally ill individuals. While lawyers and the insurers for the University of Colorado will continue to close ranks and attempt to protect Dr. Fenton and the school from multiple civil actions, the truth is the system failed on an epic level, that options already existed to stop the shooter prior to the massacre and that we must make changes to protect society at large. The truth is also that the shooter will be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Past history points out that persons suffering from long term and significant mental illness are no more likely than others to engage in homicidal actions or mass murders. In fact persons with thought disorders and other mental illness are twice as likely to be victims of crimes and are disproportionately targeted for homicide themselves.
In the case of James Holmes however, had Dr. Fenton brought his name to the attention of campus police (we may eventually find she did) who were also part of that assessment team, a simple check of records would have shown that Holmes was buying weapons. In Illinois, on any routine traffic stop, officers know almost immediately if the subject has had any previous stops or if their name has been run in computerized records and which town ran it, including when it was run. The same ability exists in Colorado when a background check is done for a gun purchase and that information was certainly available for campus police to easily find. At some point we'll know if the threat assessment team knew Holmes and whether his name was run for gun purchases.
In my work as a Police Psychologist it is routine to run checks for Firearm Owners Identification Cards (FOID Cards) on any individual whom I come in contact with for mental health reasons. Even if no legal permission to own a weapon exists, we still contact family members and inquire about gun ownership or availability. This one element of threat assessment is so crucial to the process that it is inconceivable to me that it was over-looked. Not for one minute do I think Campus Police would have dropped this ball. What I think was more likely is that Holmes's name was never brought up to the assessment team to begin with and that Dr. Fenton never realized the significance of the threat that James Homes presented.
In the final analysis we had a responsibility to the shooter who suffered from an identifiable mental illness and we had a responsibility to the victims of the Colorado Theater Massacre. The responsibility was to protect all of them. We (the mental health system) already knew that the shooter was ill. What we did or failed to do, from that point on will eventually come out. Those responsible for this epic failure should be responded to with all possible sanctions. We simply cannot accept that the actions of mentally ill shooters such as Seung-Hui Cho (Virginai Tech), Jared Lee Loughner (Tuscan Arizona), Anders Behring Breivik (Norway), and James Homes (Aurora, Colorado) as an unstoppable fact of life. All could have been stopped and should have been stopped. The University of Colorado should be dealt with in the same fashion as Penn State, directly and painfully, so that no school thinks they can ever hide behind policy and procedures to the detriment of all.