To hear Mayor Chavez and his press claque describe it, you would think that our city’s newly enacted Kendra’s Law was a milestone in the advance of civilization—a basic public safety guarantee and a true silver bullet that will end once and for all the peril posed to our community by mentally ill persons.
Sadly, it is none of those. Most especially, it is not a silver bullet. Dud, blank, misfired round—all are more appropriate metaphors for this piece of feel-good legislation that inexplicably drew support from all but one city council member. That sole hold-out for reason and clear thinking, Councilor Debbie O’Malley, deserves to be congratulated for not falling for the preposterous spiel that carried the day.
Kendra’s Law purports to increase public safety by creating a mechanism whereby a mentally ill person who is dangerous to others can be ordered to participate in psychiatric treatment, even if they don’t want to. Hence it is also referred to as Mandated Outpatient Treatment (we already have legally-established and well-tested provisions for ordering involuntary hospitalization).
Although certainly there are many ways of becoming informed about legislation besides listening to research findings from expert witnesses, the dearth of city officials at the town hall hearing a week before the vote fuels my belief that this measure was passed as an olive branch offered to the mayor, not because the council imagined it actually would ever become operational.
It is virtually certain to be challenged in court by a long list of advocates for the mentally ill who recognize the inherent lunacy of requiring a group (we are assured it is a small group) of identified citizens with certain symptoms (there, but for the grace of God, go you and I) into psychiatric treatment (read: forced to take psychotropic meds) but not providing any new funds or method for paying for such treatment.
So why would a group of otherwise reasonable and responsible elected officials such as our City Council take a dive on this stinko measure? I can’t believe they actually fell for the arguments advanced by proponents. It is more likely that they made a calculation to let the Mayor have a “win” this time, knowing full well that the inevitable judicial reviews would probably result in tossing the ordinance out … or at least big chunks of it.
There is a great hunger in our town for harmony and cooperation between mayor and council. Far too many issues get lost in contention between those two branches, so when the public perceives tensions growing, it tends to blame both sides rather than trying to figure out who the real troublemaker is.
This dynamic creates a no-win situation for councilors, who can too easily be portrayed as whiny, obstructionist or negative when they oppose the 11th floor.
When a mayor, on the other hand, digs his heels in and refuses to go along with a Council position, he can come across in the press as looking principled, firm and decisive.
I think this instance was one where the councilors decided to cut their losses. You have to pick your fights carefully when dealing with someone with the combative juices of Marty Chavez, so I can’t blame the council for caving in and leaving it up to the courts to point out the glaring holes in the new law.
But it’s a high stakes game. There is absolutely no guarantee the courts will decide against the city’s version of Kendra’s Law. I was dismayed to see both of our daily newspapers editorialize in favor of the measure—an indication that while I might see this as horribly flawed policy, at least some people out there find virtue in it. So it is not beyond belief that we might well wind up with this albatross dangling from our necks. Then what?
My biggest fear is that it will become a method for jailing mentally ill people who live on the street. Who’s to say with any confidence that otherwise docile, virtually invisible homeless persons wouldn’t be deemed dangerous to others because they appear physically large, shout wildly in public and have menacing stares for those who question them?
Even if they are not hauled off to jail at their first indiscreet action, if they won’t cooperate with some treatment ordered by a judge, will the cops enforce the court order by jailing them for failure to take their meds? And if the meds produce unpleasant or even sickening side effects, will that be grounds for stopping them in the face of a court order?
We need more effective treatment for those with behavioral health problems. A great many persons who seek out treatment, who are willing to try anything that promises to help reduce their distress and who would cooperate with any treatment program made available, are doing without, either because there is no way to pay for it, because there is no effective treatment available or because there is a long waiting list to access it.
Shouldn’t our first effort as a community be to meet the needs of those eager for help before we venture out into the gray area of forcing (potentially nonexistent) treatment on men and women who don’t want it?