[J. Patrick Coolican]

The Steven Brooks saga points to much bigger problems

Assemblymen Steven Brooks, left, and Pat Hickey.
Photo: Sam Morris

The Steven Brooks saga came to its sad, farcical end last week, as he was expelled from the Legislature hours before allegedly leading police on a high-speed chase near Barstow, Calif.

Brooks, who allegedly threatened Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, seems to be suffering from some kind of mental duress. The unfortunate truth is that the Brooks story, sad as it is—he told Jon Ralston that he is the “Assemblyman of sorrow”—could have been even more tragic.

Consider Stanley Gibson. He’s the unarmed, disabled Army veteran who was experiencing a psychiatric episode when he repeatedly came into contact with law enforcement and the health care system in late 2011, before Metro finally shot and killed him in his car.

With Brooks, thus far, we have been incredibly fortunate. He had a gun in his car when he was first arrested in January, and police say he threw one out the window before being apprehended in California. He also unsuccessfully tried to buy a gun in Sparks. This all could have ended in something much, much worse.

Nevada’s mental health system is a mess. We’re 51st in the nation in per capita beds, with just 5.1 per 100,000 residents. In 2010, our per capita mental health spending was 57 percent of the national average, and we’ve cut around $80 million from mental health since the start of the recession. This week, a state investigation found that a Southern Nevada mental hospital unsafely released three patients, including one who was given a bus ticket to Sacramento with no provisions for what would happen once he arrived.

The wait for outpatient care is at least 30 days. Our jails and prisons have become de facto mental health facilities. It’s a moral travesty and counterproductive policy; we end up paying anyway, through emergency room care or jail beds.

Not that there’s an easy fix. The Brooks case has shone a light on the difficult issue of whether we can or should institutionalize someone against his will. Unfortunately, given the constraints of the 120-day session of our every-other-year Legislature, we can’t expect any significant new resources or policy breakthroughs.

So, what to do? Gov. Brian Sandoval would earn my vote for re-election if he called a special session of the Legislature this fall to address mental health. We would listen to mental health, legal and civil liberties experts who would help us craft good policy while the money people would determine how much it would take to get there. Assembly Majority Leader William Horne’s idea is to tax guns and ammunition to raise money for mental health treatment. I like what he’s thinking—stick it to the gun lobby while we fix this problem—but it also means the proposal has no chance.

The Brooks situation ending the way it did, with no one seriously injured, was just dumb luck. In Las Vegas of all places, we should know that relying on luck is foolish.

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