Santa Barbara mass shooting suspect Elliot Rodger wrote that he feared his violent plans were unraveling when he was visited by sheriff’s deputies less than a month before the attacks in the college community of Isla Vista, and was relieved when the officials left without discovering his weaponry and writings outlining his planned rampage.
Santa Barbara sheriff’s deputies visited Rodger at his home April 30 in response to concerns over his mental health, but left without taking further action after interviewing him, officials said.
Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said during a Saturday press conference that the visit was not the result of any threat believed to be posed by Rodger to others, but rather was a “check on the welfare call, to check on his welfare, to see how he was doing out of concern for him.”
“The deputies contacted him directly at his residence, and they determined he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health hold,” the sheriff’ said. “He was, as I said, courteous and polite. He appeared timid and shy.”
“Rodger down-played the concerns for his welfare, and the deputies cleared the call,” Brown said.
Under California law, a peace officer may bring a person to a psychiatric facility to be held for evaluation and treatment for a 72-hour period, “When a person, as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled.”
Though Rodger mentioned difficulties with his social life and told the deputies he may be quitting school when deputies encountered him in late-April, “He did not meet the criteria for 5150 of the welfare and institutions code which is what would authorize him being held temporarily for an examination,” Brown said.
In hindsight, however, having reviewed Rodger’s 141-page writing and the “particularly chilling” video posted just before the attack in which he described his deadly plans, “It’s very apparent of the severe extent of how disturbed Mr. Rodger was,” Brown said. “It’s very, very apparent that he was severely mentally disturbed.”
Taking a person’s freedom by placing them on an involuntary hold for psychiatric evaluation is not an issue officials take lightly, Santa Barbara Department of Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services Medical Director Dr. Ole Behrendtsen said.
“The law pretty much had to walk this fine line between civil liberty and public safety,” he said. “Courts often will favor civil liberty.”
“The law is pretty strict, actually, in its definition,” he said.
For a person to be held against their will due to suspected psychiatric problems, it must be believed, from the perspective of an ordinary person, “that a mental disorder is responsible for a potential to harm themselves, or to harm another, or to prompt an inability to provide food, clothing or shelter,” Behrendtsen explained.
“This is something that has to be wrestled with every time we right a 5150,” he said.
The seven-minute Youtube video posted by Rodger just before the attack describing his plans would have provided cause for a psychiatric hold, Behrendtsen said.
But in the previous videos he posted before May 24, though Rodger spoke of being lonely and sad, did not mention violence or threats.
“The deputies who visited him that day did not have the contents of that manifesto,” Behrendtsen added.
In the rambling, autobiographical writing filled with fantasies of violence against women, Rodger wrote he had been terrified that his planned massacre was about to be thwarted when deputies showed up at his door April 30.
Videos posted on Youtube by Rodger in which he expressed his feelings of rejection, but did not outline his planned rampage, had garnered concern from at least one family member, according to sheriff’s officials and Rodger’s own writings.
“After only a week had passed since I uploaded those videos on Youtube, I heard a knock on my apartment door. I opened it to see about seven police officers asking for me,” Rodger wrote. “As soon as I saw those cops, the biggest fear I had ever felt in my life came over me. I had the striking and devastating fear that someone had somehow discovered what I was planning to do, and reported me for it. If that was the case, the police would have searched my room, found all of my guns and weapons, along with my writings about what I plan to do with them. I would have been thrown in jail, denied of the chance to exact revenge on my enemies. I can’t imagine a hell darker than that. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, but it was so close.”
“The police told me it was my mother who called them, but my mother told me it was the health agency. My mother had watched the videos and was very disturbed by them. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the full truth of who called the police on me,” Rodger wrote.
“The police interrogated me outside for a few minutes, asking me if I had suicidal thoughts. I tactfully told them it was all a misunderstanding, and they finally left. If they had demanded to search my room… That would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds, I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me. It was so scary.”
The initial evaluation to determine whether to hold someone for psychological evaluation or treatment stems from both observations by the peace officer or mental health professional interviewing the person, as well as a review of the “historical course of the person’s mental disorder,” according to state law. Information provided by family members are, among other factors, must be taken into account.
Rodger noted in his writings that the encounter with deputies had persuaded him to be more careful about concealing his plans.
“All it takes is for one person to call the police and tell them that they think I’m going to perpetrate a shooting, and the police will be coming to by door again, demanding to search my room,” Rodger wrote. “For the next few days, I felt extremely fearful that they could show up anytime.
“I kept one of my handguns with a few loaded magazines near me just in case such a thing did happen. If they showed up, I would have to try to quickly shoot them all and escape out of the back window. I would then have to perform a hasty mockery of my plans, with the police on my tail. That will ruin everything. Thankfully, all suspicion of me was dropped after I took down the videos from Youtube, and the police never came back.”
Ron Honberg, Director of Policy and Legal Affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Health, cautioned against “knee-jerk” reactions in the wake of the tragedy.
“There’s going to be a desire to come up with easy solutions,” he said. “It’s important not to just adopt knee-jerk solutions, but to really look at the circumstances and understand as best we can what was happening.”
Mental health services are in short supply throughout the nation, Honberg said. Additionally, the mental health services system tends to be “crisis-centered,” he said. “Mental health services are often not available until it’s too late. It’s a system that doesn’t really focus on preventative care.”
Regarding the deputies encounter with Rodger on April 30, Honberg said, “Hindsight is 20/20. It is sometimes very difficult to accurately assess someone in a five-minute meeting.”
“Frankly, we’re asking far too much of our police,” he said, but added he was not suggesting the outcome would have been altered even if he had been visited by mental health professionals instead of law enforcement officers.
It can be especially difficult to recognize mental issues when the prospective patient wishes to hide their true thoughts and intentions, as Rodger stated in his writings was his goal.
“This is not an uncommon phenomenon,” Honberg said. Concerned family members often lament that they can clearly see their loved one’s mental illness, but the person is able to hide their symptoms from mental health professionals or judges.
Honberg pointed out that while violent acts committed by the mentally ill garner major attention, “The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent.”
“Although these seem to be occurring with greater frequency, they’re still uncommon and unusual,” he said.
Of those suffering from mental illness, however, there is one subset of patients more likely to pose a greater risk of violent behavior than others. “Those would be young males, often when their (psychotic or delusional) symptoms are first emerging, not getting treatment, combining that with the use of illegal drugs or alcohol.”
It was not clear whether Rodger used alcohol or drugs.
In addition to highlighting the issues faced by peace officers and mental health professionals encounter with regard to involuntary psychiatric holds, Behrendtsen said Friday’s mass shooting, “Is an illustration of how humans can suffer so deeply without coming to attention.
“It’s an illustration of how much mental illness there is that foes untreated, for many reason,” he said. The reasons can include stigma, economics or lack of recognition of a problem.
An estimated two-thirds of all mental illnesses go undiagnosed and untreated, he said.
“There’s thousands of reasons these things don’t come to light,” Behrendtsen said. “Reduction of stigma is, and will be, an important mechanism for reducing suffering in our society.”