Saturday, February 20, 2010

Change in Iowa law will require mental health officials to hold people accused of crimes until police can take them into custody

From KWQC-TV in Iowa:

The high-profile murder trial of Mark Becker could end up changing Iowa law. Becker is accused of killing high school football coach Ed Thomas.

Before that shooting, police arrested Becker following a high speed chase and he was sent to the hospital. Police asked the county's mental health coordinator to notify them when Becker was released, but that didn't happen. The day after he got out of the hospital, police say Becker killed Thomas.

Now some Iowa lawmakers are trying to prevent something like that from happening again. The Iowa Senate passed a measure that would make sure mental health officials hold people accused of crimes until police can take them into custody.

Joyce Morrison with Vera French in Davenport says the bill is a good idea. "It's very proactive with regard to protection."

Morrison says the bill would protect the community and the person suffering from mental illness, by taking another step before the patient is released. "There's checks and balances for privacy because the examination has to be done by an evaluating physician and then the order has to be requested from a magistrate so there's review before they release that kind of info."

Davenport police say there have been instances when mental health patients accused of crimes have been released without them knowing, and they say this bill would open the lines of communication among the agencies involved.

Morrison agrees and says there should be a law in place to address the issue. "We've had incidents here in the Quad Cities, we know there've been national incidents, so I think people are really taking a look at the laws and saying, 'Is there something more we can do to protect people?'"

She says violence is rarely part of mental illness but when it does happen, it's often in people with a psychotic disorder. "People with psychotic disorders generally are not violent. You're looking at a very small percentage of the case, but when they are, they really need to be protected and the public really needs to be protected."

There's one thing Morrison hopes the measure won't do: place more stigma on people with mental health issues. She says in the rare case when a mentally ill person hurts someone it's usually themselves.

The Iowa Senate approved the police notification bill 48-0.