Tarasoff Revisited: Elliot Rodger’s Final Murder?

The New York Times Room for Debate seized upon the Isla Vista murders to raise the question of why Elliot Rodger flew under the Santa Barbara sheriff’s radar.  It posed the question:

Once again, senseless slaughter has raised questions not only about how mentally disturbed people can obtain guns, but why authorities can’t intervene to prevent violence.

Do the laws regarding mental health professionals’ duty to warn the authorities of a threat need to be toughened to make them more effective?

The question itself is disturbing, aligned with the sheriff’s excuse for the failure to identify a dangerous mentally ill young man. 

The gunman, identified as Elliot O. Rodger, 22, did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold when deputies visited him as part of a welfare check on April 30, Sheriff Brown said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” The deputies were acting on the complaints of Mr. Rodger’s mother, who was alarmed by videos he had posted online.

On the Friday night before the murder spree, Rodger’s parents recognized that their worst fears were likely accurate:

Mr. Rodger’s parents were frantically rushing to find him Friday night after his mother opened an email that contained the manifesto and also received an alarmed call from Mr. Rodger’s therapist, according to a man who described himself as a longtime family friend.

While Mr. Rodger had received mental health treatment and counseling, he had neither been institutionalized nor held involuntarily for treatment, the sheriff said. “And those are the two triggers that actually would have made him a prohibited person in terms of a firearms purchase. So he was able, sadly, to obtain those three firearms” legally.

The question goes now to the mental health therapist, and the Times offers the views of six people, all of whom are on the side of truth and justice, who argue that the law needs to be updated so the therapist could have broken privilege, revealed Rodger’s troubles, notified his parents and the police, prevented him from getting a gun and stopped these senseless murder.

Apparently, it’s far too easy for a crazy kid to bamboozle the sheriff into thinking that the kid isn’t dangerously nuts, so the burden of saving the victims falls to mental health professionals.  And the argument is that the Tarasoff duty to warn is at fault.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is one of the participants in the debate, and adopts the language of romance to court a new approach that will keep us safe from the crazies.

There’s no doubt that the laws governing mental health professionals have served as a component for the dangerous circumstances under which law enforcement operates. In most states, a psychiatrist or psychologist can only inform law enforcement officials about patients who “pose a clear and present danger to himself, herself, or to others.” Identifying what exactly this means is an imperfect science, and even when it can be identified, there is still a time lag in severing the mentally ill individual’s ability to possess a weapon and buy ammunition.

Mental health providers and law enforcement officials need flexibility to address situations before they become life threatening. There needs to be greater communication and partnership between the two professions to protect the most seriously mentally ill from hurting themselves or others.

Flexibility. Partnership. Greater communication. And it’s for their own good, to protect the “most seriously mentally ill from hurting themselves.” Or others.

It is not enough to lament our laws. Law enforcement agencies and mental health providers should not be coming together only in the wake of tragic gun violence. Instead, we must act and unite law enforcement and mental health providers to protect communities and advocate – together – for greater services to those suffering from mental illness.

This almost makes me want to invite law enforcement into the therapy room, in the spirit of coming together and cooperation. Except for the missing aspect of the debate that might have been mentioned had the Times not sought the views of only one side.

For those fortunate enough to have access to mental health care, there is a societal interest that they seek it and receive it.  It’s not that we expect anyone to become a mass murderer, but that its better and safer for all involved to have relatively sane people walking around rather than nutjobs.  Mental health professionals would hate me for using the word “nutjobs,” because it’s derogatory, but the fact remains that their medicine remains tentative and nutjobs abound.  Most are harmless. Some are not. Some are very dangerous.

As Dart notes, ” Cook County jail, which I oversee, is the largest mental health institution in the United States.”  So let’s create even greater incentives for people to avoid seeking help by making therapy a cooperative venture with the police.  Let’s make the jails even larger mental health institutions, because they’re so successful at improving their inmates’ conditions.

Notably, the Room for Debate focuses on the mental health aspect of Elliot Rodger, which is widely argued as secondary to the root cause of his murderous acts, his misogyny.  Consider the ramifications of identifying people who hold politically incorrect views as being potentially dangerous, likely insane.

The Tarasoff warning has always been a slippery slope, because the state of understanding of mental illness is more art than science.  Who is dangerous?  At what point does a person go from deeply disturbed to a threat to another?  Where is the tipping point that mandates a mental health professional to not only put aside privilege, but to affirmatively warn?

The tendency to seize upon the latest tragedy as a call to action, to fix what ails us, is strong.  Would we have been better off if Elliot Rodger never sought therapy at all?  That’s the most likely outcome of watering down the therapist/patient privilege, no matter how sweetly guys like Dart sing Kumbaya.


19 thoughts on “Tarasoff Revisited: Elliot Rodger’s Final Murder?

  1. Marc R

    I’m not sure he sought therapy. I assumed his parents made that a condition of getting a BMW for attending community college. I think he would’ve done something earlier without therapy, but that’s just careless speculation.

    The issue you raise is huge…knocking down patient-therapist relationship on what grounds? The patient said he hated women? He said people would pay someday? And what’s the police reaction to be? a 72 hour hold? What criteria does the judge use for a civil commitment hearing? I can’t believe people are debating reducing the barriers, but I’d like to think it won’t happen.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you haven’t read the Times this morning, but comment that you’re not sure? Yes, it’s careless speculation. If you don’t know, then don’t say it. You are no more entitled to make people stupider than anyone else.

      1. Marc R

        I read it. You think the 8 year old sought therapy or his parents saw something odd and made him, or his parents made him because that’s the popular place to send your kid when you’re in Hollywood. As for his latest rounds of therapists, I have no idea whether he actually sought them out or it’s his family’s (they have a publicist) condition of his leaving the home.

        And to be clear, I don’t think his family is in any way responsible for his crime. They’re responsible for him being entitled, but luckily entitlement does’t manifest itself in these types of crimes enough to be a necessary causation.

        1. SHG Post author

          Of course an 8-year-old didn’t seek therapy on his own, but you attributed his first resort to help to his getting a BMW, as if his mental illness sprang out of nowhere when he suffered the angst of male virginity. That is not the case, and that must not be spread as if it might be the case.

          This post is about the impact of a Tarasoff extension for all people, not just for Rodger.

          1. Marc R

            I see. I should have said “his continuing therapy.” I guess he was honest with his therapist to some degree but I don’t know if he made progress or what his actual treatment was. I guess the common refrain is that if he was a sociopath then a therapist could try modifying his behavior through conditioning him to see how others view him.

            Regardless, eroding the privilege is a huge mistake and there’s still no discussion of the remedy…what would the police do? Detain those who made no direct threats?

            1. SHG Post author

              The path between outlier tragedy and new laws that wouldn’t solve the tragedy but will cause terrible unintended consequences is becoming dangerously well-worn. Better to work to point out the error of the path than to add to the confusion.

  2. RRose

    Raising the issue draws attention away from the fact that his parents called the police over alarming videos he had posted online, and the deputies apparently did not even look at the videos before they contacted him. We don’t need new rules – we need people who do their damn jobs.

      1. RRose

        Thank you. I want to add that feigned concern for “what could the police have done [within the bounds of the constitution]” is also nonsense. If they had seen the videos, they would have searched his name on the relevant firearms databases, where it would have shown his many recent purchases of firearms. That would have been enough to hold him for 24 hours and search his house and computer, and his posts on PUAhate would have been enough to get him detained and made it an uphill battle for his attorney to get him out of a secure mental institution. They did not need his therapist.

  3. AH

    I am not trying to make light of this terrible tragedy at all, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes terrible things happen and there is nothing concrete that could have been done to stop them. Or the implication of the potentially helpful actions are so negative, that we are prepared to accept the risk. Yes, we could lock all mentally ill people up in institutions at first diagnosis in an attempt to prevent any violence by the mentally ill, but I hope that people recognize that the risk isn’t worth the terrible human rights violation of doing so.

    It is entirely unclear how a watering down of Tarasoff would have made a difference here. The police in this case had actually been notified and did nothing. I suspect they could have searched to see if Elliot had a gun (or guns, my understanding is that they were all legally obtained and registered.) And if the mental health professional believed he was a risk, I presume he would have reported, but of course that is a judgment call that can never be right 100% of the time.

    The sad thing is there is likely nothing that can be done to prevent such tragedies from ever occuring. The goal is to minimize them to the extent possible. Mental health is a difficult issue, and this was a man who had access to resources that most people don’t. Imagine the challenge for those who don’t have the resources. I would think in the circumstances the discussion would be more about effective access to mental health treatment rather than creating reasons people would be afraid to get treatment.

    1. SHG Post author

      People can’t stand the ambiguity of not being able to solve things, and so they delude themselves into believing, and only later lament the collateral damage they cause. Sometimes, there is no answer that solves a problem, but every attempted answer brings more problems.

  4. Barry Sheridan

    I cannot help thinking that it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish a fool proof method of identifying someone who might decide to take out their anger or failings on someone else in this manner. Both John Douglas (Mindhunters and Anatomy of Motive) and Paul Britton (Jigsaw Man and Picking up the pieces) have written excellent books regarding their experiences in dealing with minds who are out of balance. What is apparent from these works by people who are highly qualified in judging such matters is how subtle the cues are and how easy it must be to get it wrong. Disturbed people can be highly intelligent and fully capable of convincing others that they are not dangerous, that said however, it does seem as if in this instance Elliot Rodger exhibited enough signs for him to be dealt with before he started murdering. As RROSE mentioned above, we are not in need of more rules, just more folk who are willing to do what they are expected to do. My sympathies are with all those affected by this pointless brutality.

    1. SHG Post author

      Any good psych will tell you that its nearly impossible to discern someone who will actually engage in violence from someone who won’t. There are signs, but they are the same signs as shown by many psychotics who never harm anyone. As I said, it’s more art than science, and it’s impossible to predict such things with reasonable certainty.

  5. Fubar

    Insufficiently solemn prophecy translated from ancient potscards discovered in Painted Caves, off San Marcos Pass Road above Santa Barbara

    “Work with cops, shrinks!”, cries Tom Dart, Abort
    Killing sprees without going to court.
    Patient’s weird? Just call us,
    And we won’t need to fuss
    About Lanterman, Petris and Short.

    But his mom called the cops. They did squat.
    He stabbed three and the others he shot.
    “Grease the Tarasoff warning!
    A new day is dawning!”
    Same as yesterday, likely as not.

    1. John Barleycorn

      Fubar, I hope you know that you have so much promise here within the back pages of the SJ comment section.

      However, to unlock your full potential, I personally, would recommend more sprits and or a few dozen or so garden variety synthetic and naturally refined opiates and potentially some other brain chemistry altering and enhancing pharmaceutical concoctions if that fails.

      Starting off with a instinctive and roughly mixed opiate and alcohol blend that is just slightly out of symmetry and balance with just the right foggy, wobbling, peaceful buzz should do for introductory starters.

      If the opiates are difficult for you to come by, might I suggest a visit to a psychologists office near you (preferably one located within a one half mile of a non connecting public transit route). Not all but many psychologist will be more than happy to prescribe some entry level doses of opiates on the first visit.

      I have found that expressing your profound grief that the lost thrills of youth (like the feeling of flying through the air off a plywood ramp on your Big Wheel) are becoming increasingly difficult to replicate, is an excellent starting point when the Doctor gently and sincerely asks why you booked an appointment.

      Next week, I may introduce you to the importance of bringing a 15 cubic foot polka-dotted balloon elephant to the dentists office for its therapeutic and calming effects. But, first I will have to do some current affairs research and then go full ceremonial including fasting for a day while high to best read, interpret, and then predict the message the tea leaves are sending on the potential legislative shenanigans afoot with all this Tarasoff and privileged business floating round like sand fleas on an otherwise perfect beach. Because if my dentist ever decides to turn me in for some of the language and thoughts I cut loose with around her I am for sure going to get a non-nitrous-oxide-fortified trip to the county ward for a mandatory three day hold because I am guessing they will not allow me to bring my polka-dotted balloon elephant.

      Well, I should lay down some poignant R.D. Laing in conclusion just to keep our esteemed hosts stoic readers informed and agitated. And seeing as how all this Misogyny Chatter and Other Maters of Fucked Up Childhoods are becoming damn near contagious around these parts the last few days I probably should, but alas my glass is nearly empty and the dog ate the last of my scrip.

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  7. Robert

    So a “misogynist” according to you is someone who meticulously carves up 3 men with knives, then goes out to shoot a large number of rounds indiscriminately, killing three people.

    There are as many anti-male statements in his manifesto as complaints about women.

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