Think of it as a kind of Christmas miracle. That what should have happened actually happened. That a war-damaged veteran got the help he needed. That a terrifying scenario — an unhinged former soldier holed up with a cache of assault weapons and ammo — was defused.
What should have happened actually happened, despite irrational state laws governing mental health interventions, despite Florida’s fiscal neglect of mental health services.
The 26-year-old Iraq War vet, his reasoning bent by the stress and trauma of combat (and perhaps a brain injury), had barricaded himself in his two-story town house off 109th Avenue in Northwest Miami-Dade County, where he stewed in apocalyptic notions and insurrectionist paranoia. His relatives were terrified that as his mental state deteriorated, the potential for a deadly confrontation was escalating. They knew he kept a dreadful collection of firearms, a virtual armory, inside a town house not far from a school.
That the vet was in urgent need of mental health treatment seemed obvious. He had covered the interior walls of his home with bizarre drawings and portentous slogans: “Everyone must die.” He had tacked bullet-riddled firing range targets, black human silhouettes, on the wall. He raved that the nation was about to dissolve into some final explosion of chaotic violence. He had strategically placed his guns — police would later find 20 assault weapons and seven other firearms, along with more than 15,000 rounds of ammunition — arrayed near the home’s windows, ready to fend off the imagined final siege. (His town house complex is not far from the K-through-12 Miami Christian School.)
But none of these factors, given Florida’s mental health laws and miserly funding (last in the nation) of mental health services, would necessarily lead to real treatment. All too often, after the mentally ill are taken to one of the county’s overcrowded crisis stabilization centers, they’re out again in a few hours, said Habsi W. Kaba, who runs Miami-Dade’s crisis intervention program.
It could have happened with the vet. That it didn’t, that he was involuntarily committed to a Veteran’s Administration hospital after his Baker Act (mental health) hearing on Thursday, was serendipity. Like I said: a Christmas miracle.
On Dec. 17, after police (unaware of the weaponry inside) had twice gone knocking on the vet’s door with no response, one of his very worried relatives managed to reach the office of Steve Leifman. A lucky find. He was the county judge who designed Miami-Dade’s crisis intervention policies. Leifman, as much as anyone in the county, or in the state for that matter, has fought to fix Florida’s legal disregard and financial neglect of the mentally ill.
Leifman’s staff notified the Miami-Dade Police Department, which dispatched a negotiator with a specially trained SWAT team. The negotiator happened to be Det. Victor Milian. That, too, was serendipity. Milian, before joining the police force, had spent 26 years as a medic in the U.S. Army. “I’m familiar with these issues,” he told me. Milian said he was determined that wounded and damaged vets “get the help they need and deserve.” He made it pretty clear he thinks the nation has badly neglected those needs.
Milian stood five hours outside, talking down a deluded man with an insane amount of firepower at the ready. Someone, as Judge Leifman pointed out, “who thought cops were out to kill him.” All this unfolded just three days after another mad man with an assault weapon brought such awful carnage to Newtown, Conn. Milian just shrugged off the risk. “That’s what we do, as negotiators,” he insisted. “Try to bring a situation to an end in a peaceful manner.” But as he said it, I kept thinking about those 20 assault weapons. About Sandy Hook and Aurora.
Habsi Kaba called Milian a hero. But not just for his work on Dec. 17, when he was able to coax the vet to come out of his fortress home, unarmed, to be taken to the crisis stabilization unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital. On Thursday, Milian also attended the vet’s Baker Act hearing, a formality cops usually skip. But he knew that the mentally ill, often as not, are simply turned loose once their acute symptoms have abated. “We Baker Act people and then see them back on the streets within hours,” he said.
Kaba said Miami-Dade police, trained to take mentally ill people to crisis stabilization units instead of jail, often find that they’ve picked up the same, deranged individuals eight or nine times. “The police are trained. They know what to do. But we don’t have the resources or the funding or the beds [to provide adequate mental health treatment],” she said.
And then there’s the law. Unless the mentally ill agree to more extensive treatment, they can’t be held more than a few hours unless they’re deemed to be an immediate threat to themselves or someone else. They can refuse the very treatment they need. The problem, of course, is that the nature of mental illness precludes accurate self-diagnosis.
Milian was worried that the vet might be simply set free, without the treatment he needs. Kaba said that before the Baker Act hearing on Thursday, she figured the chances of getting the vet into a hospital setting “was 50-50.” Judge Leifman said that if the vet, who faces no criminal charges, had been freed, he could have legally reclaimed his guns. “There’s no law limiting how many assault weapons you can have. Or how much ammo.”
Maybe it was all that firepower that frightened the hearing officer. Maybe it was pleas from the vet’s family. Maybe it was Milian, who came to the three-hour hearing, determined that a veteran received the help that was owed him. But reason prevailed and the vet was on his way to an involuntary hospital stay. He’ll be held for at least 120 days. What should have happened (but doesn’t often) happened. The vet got treatment. The public got a reprieve from a dangerous situation.
Here’s hoping the Christmas miracle evolves into long-term treatment and mental stability. Because, after the troubled vet th Avenue emerges from his hospital stay, there’s no law preventing him from taking his firearms, his ammo and his paranoid delusions back to his fortress town house.