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Policing the mentally ill: A dilemma

Authorities grapple with how to intervene when lives spiral out of control
Natalie St. John

Published on June 12, 2018 3:48PM

Onlookers watched as a man was loaded into an ambulance after an altercation in Ilwaco.

LUKE WHITTAKER/Chinook Observer

Onlookers watched as a man was loaded into an ambulance after an altercation in Ilwaco.

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ILWACO — It was clear Mitchell Marteeny was having a serious breakdown well before he stabbed three men in April.

Police, health care providers, his boss and even Marteeny knew his paranoid delusions and erratic behavior were getting worse, according to a new report, but they felt powerless to do anything.

The situation is all too common, due to a dire shortage of mental health services, and laws that prevent people from being involuntarily committed, according to Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright.

“When you have somebody that’s obviously mentally unstable, they should be hospitalized,” Wright said on June 11. “Their right to be wandering the streets should not infringe upon the rights of the community to be safe.”

Close brush with death

Marteeny, 51, of Ilwaco, was arrested on April 30, after he attempted to set his former neighbor’s car on fire, then stabbed him. He also stabbed two men who tried to intervene. One man retrieved a gun and fired shots into the air during the confrontation. The men’s injuries were not life-threatening, but Wright says the incident “absolutely” could have ended in tragedy.

“It’s only by some fluke-y luck that [Marteeny] didn’t kill the guy,” Wright said. “There are so many things that could have happened.”

Marteeny was booked into Pacific County Jail and charged with first-degree assault, second-degree assault, second-degree arson and malicious mischief.

A tragic precedent

A similar situation at a Long Beach trailer court cost a man his life in April 2014. Resident Marvin Nelson, Jr., 36, shot his neighbor and set his trailer on fire before killing himself in front of first responders. Nelson used a shotgun loaded with birdshot, so the victim’s injuries were not life-threatening, but the man had to be airlifted to an Oregon hospital.

Nelson had a long criminal history that included a federal kidnapping conviction. He suffered from severe mental illness and drug addiction. He was supposed to be under close post-prison supervision, but state corrections authorities lost track of him. Neighbors knew his behavior was escalating, but didn’t realize how serious his situation was until the day his addiction, mental illness and fear of returning to prison culminated in tragedy.

Partially competent

In late May, a judge ordered Marteeny to undergo a mental health evaluation. A state-approved evaluator interviewed him for almost two hours on June 6, with the goal of determining whether he is competent to stand trial.

The evaluator concluded that Marteeny likely suffers from drug addiction and some type of psychotic or delusional disorder. His use of meth may have caused his symptoms, or made them worse, the evaluator said.

According to the report, Marteeny is able “to understand the nature of the proceedings against him, but due to a mental disorder, lacks the capacity to assist in his own defense.” As evidence, the evaluator cited nonsensical statements Marteeny gave in reply to straightforward questions. He will be sent to Western State Hospital for “restoration” and further evaluation.

Warning signs

As a young man, Marteeny went through a period of heavy drinking that led to several run-ins with the law. He began using meth around 2003. A new round of criminal charges and warrants followed. His last conviction was in 2013.

Marteeny was married for 25 years. He said his wife’s death in May 2017 caused him to relapse because his “nerves were shot.” He started having more serious problems a few months before she died. Police records show that he first told them about his paranoid delusions about his neighbors in 2016. He made one call to the police that year and one in October 2017.

In 2018, he had 17 interactions with Long Beach Police before the April 30 stabbing. As he became increasingly convinced his neighbors were holding women hostage and raping them, his contacts with police became more frequent. There were two in January, six in March and nine in April.

Untreatable problems

Marteeny’s neighbors got tired of being accused of rape. His landlord prepared to evict him. Police found him dancing in the street. When he was seen yelling outside of his apartment, one officer noted, “His behavior appears to be escalating.”

On March 29, his landlord took him to Ocean Beach Hospital, where he spoke with a counselor about his delusions. His providers said he had drug-induced psychosis, with “a strong emotional component.” However, he did not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, so he was released.

In Washington, there are very strict requirements for committing people who don’t want to be treated.

“In order for us to involuntarily take someone into custody for a mental health evaluation, they have to be clearly a threat to themselves or others, or be gravely disabled,” Wright, the police chief, explained. “The law is very narrow on this. In other words, we aren’t allowed to be creative … It has to be like, ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ or ‘I’m going to kill my neighbor.’” Marteeny never made any threats, so police “were very limited” in what they could do, Wright said.

On April 16, Marteeny went to the hospital on his own and asked to be re-assessed. Evaluators gave him the same diagnosis. Although he was so agitated he “could not engage in the conversation,” he still didn’t meet the criteria for involuntary commitment. Providers helped him set up an appointment for mental health services.

At some point in April, Marteeny’s boss encouraged him to get help. Marteeny told the evaluator he went to Willapa Behavioral Health, where he was assessed and placed on a waiting list for a room in a psychiatric facility.

Sick and alone

Washington always has far more people who need psychiatric care than there are available “beds.” This is especially true for Western State and Eastern State, the two state-run facilities where most mentally ill indigent people and criminal defendants are sent. A law passed a few years ago makes it illegal to hold mental patients in other types of facilities while they await admission, so most people are simply released to wait on their own. Criminal defendants are often held in jail while they await medical treatment.

Willapa Behavioral Health crisis counselors are frequently called to evaluate patients and arrestees like Marteeny. These intervention specialists, who frequently respond to middle-of the-night calls, “are the unsung heroes,” according to Wright.

“I’ve seen so many times where they have someone who is clearly a threat to themselves or others, and they can’t find a bed to put them in,” he said. “What are you supposed to do?”

Freedom vs. safety

Activists, patients, and medical and legal authorities in America have been trying to answer that question for at least half a century. Prior to the 1970s, people with mental illnesses were regularly committed against their will, sometimes indefinitely. Then, laws started changing in the wake of a series of high-profile court rulings and action by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now, most states have laws that prevent people from being committed unless they pose an immediate threat to themselves or others. The laws ensure people aren’t held against their will. They protect each person’s right to make decisions about his or her own health care. They also create serious conundrums for first responders, who must weigh their duty to respect the rights of individuals against their duty to protect the community as a whole.

“People’s rights are at stake. Their freedom is at stake,” Wright said. “I’m not saying we chuck the Constitution, but we have to have a balance.”

In his view, the solution to this persistent societal problem ia an extensive policy overhaul and a public commitment to funding mental health services.

“You have to have politicians with the guts to change the laws, and the taxpayers willing to pay for it,” Wright said.


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