Faced with the heinous killing of four police officers, grief-stricken residents and officials of Lakewood, Washington, are being forced to come to grips with a reality that an increasing number of Americans have—or will—face. The huge number of mentally ill and potentially dangerous individuals roaming our nation’s streets, combined with the easy availability of guns, means even more such tragedies are likely to occur.
The alleged killer of the four officers, 37-year-old Maurice Clemmons, has been in and out of the judicial system since he was 17. In 1989, he was sentenced to 95 years in prison in Arkansas for robberies, burglaries, thefts, and taking a gun to school, among other crimes.
Clemmons “was then unleashed back onto society as a walking time bomb. The chilling fact is, there are thousands of similar individuals walking around in America.”
In 2000, after Clemmons had served 11 years, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee commuted his sentence on the recommendation of the parole board, which had determined he had met all the conditions for early release. Huckabee also cited Clemmons’ age—17 at the time of his sentencing—when he announced his decision. Within a year of his release, Clemmons was arrested for aggravated robbery and was back in prison on a parole violation. He was released again in 2004 but was never charged with the new crimes. His attorney successfully argued that the charges should be dropped because too much time had elapsed.
“Should he be found responsible for this horrible tragedy, it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington state,” Huckabee’s office said in a statement. But Clemmons won't have another day in court. He was fatally shot by police in Seattle Tuesday morning.
Jeannette Halton Tiggs, mother of Timothy Halton Jr., a paranoid schizophrenic who in 2007 gunned down Cleveland Heights Police Officer Jason West, said the circumstances surrounding the Washington state killings are eerily similar to the crime her son committed. “Nowhere in any of the articles I’ve read so far is there any mention of mental-health treatment for Clemmons,” said Tiggs. “The criminal justice system in America is so bent on prosecution rather than treatment that often obvious signs of mental instability are overlooked or are downplayed. Prosecutors, in an effort to block the use of diminished capacity or insanity defenses, even when they are legitimate and appropriate, set up situations where mental-health treatment is often not considered or given upon conviction. So these individuals return to society untreated.”
Tiggs’ son is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in an Ohio prison. “Now, for the rest of his life, he’ll get the all of the mental-health treatment he’s always needed… treatment that I attempted to provide for him… but it took the death of a fine police officer for this to be put in place, and something is drastically wrong with that,” she said.
Records indicate that Clemmons moved to Washington state after his 2004 release to be near relatives, who told authorities that in recent months his behavior had been increasingly erratic. In one instance, he forced relatives to undress, telling them families need to be “naked for at least five minutes on Sunday.” According to a report written by a Pierce County deputy sheriff, who interviewed family members, Clemmons also believed he was Jesus and that he could fly. In May, he punched a sheriff’s deputy in the face and also was arrested for the second-degree rape of a child. He had been in the county jail for months on those charges and had been out on bail for six days when the killings occurred.
“Just as in my son’s case, the killing of these officers was an execution,” said Tiggs. “Since the police are the ones who are first responders when mentally ill people act out, they become the enemy. In their derangement, mentally ill individuals feel that officers are out to hurt them, and given the opportunity they will act first.”
America’s criminal justice system is designed for “instant gratification” in criminal cases, rather than appropriate treatment, said William M. Denihan, CEO of the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services Board. “Our prisons have become the largest mental-health institutions in the country, but they don’t do a very good job of delivering mental-health services,” he said. “These kinds of services are usually the first to suffer funding cuts, and, as in this case, the consequences can be tragic. But the truth is, people can be stabilized and the public can be protected by delivering appropriate mental-health services, in most cases right in a community setting, and for usually one-fifth the cost of incarceration.”
Mental illness often goes untreated in families because of the stigma attached, Tiggs concluded. “But when Clemmons was arrested at age 17, a competent mental-health evaluation at that time should have discovered his serious mental-illness issues,” she said. “Trust me, the signs were there. Instead, his behavior was criminalized… As in many other cases, he was then unleashed back onto society as a walking time bomb. The chilling fact is, there are thousands of similar individuals walking around in America… many undiagnosed and some untreated, just waiting to explode. It’s really scary. While we’ve made great strides in this country over the last 50 years in terms of the delivery of mental-health services… we’ve still got a long way to go. We still have huge gaps, especially with underclass patients, and we’ve got to seal up these cracks that mentally ill people continually fall through. We’ve simply got to change the way in which mental-health services are delivered to the neediest in this country.”
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.