The tragic murder of two U.S. Capitol Police officers

July 27, 1998

The tragic murder of two U.S. Capitol Police officers has all of us wondering how to prevent such a tragedy. Some demand more stringent security measures at public buildings. Others say it's finally time for strict gun control.

The truth is that the deaths of these dedicated men probably could have been prevented regardless of gun laws or security concerns. While the problem that led to these deaths is dramatic, it is not new. The alleged killer, Russell Eugene Weston, Jr. had a history of mental illness. His grandmother told The Miami Herald Weston was schizophrenic. In 1996, Weston was involuntarily admitted to the Montana Psychiatric Institute at Warm Springs. A spokesman says doctors released him after less than two months because they believed he was no longer a danger to himself or to society.

Doctors released Weston to the care of his family, and recommended outpatient care. Weston probably seemed fine for a while. But if he stopped taking his medication, his paranoid delusions would eventually return.

If an arthritis patient stops taking medicine, he or she begins to feel crippling pain. If someone with a seizure disorder skips doses, they may have more seizures. When a violent mental patient goes off his or her medication, the results can be deadly.

Weston was released to the care of his family - the same distraught family that recently issued an apology to the American people for their loved one's behavior. It would be both cruel and inaccurate to blame the family for his violent relapse. A family can love and support someone who is mentally ill. They cannot control them. It is the doctors' professional responsibility and their legal duty to protect the patient, and the public. Too many lives are at stake to do otherwise.

One goal of mental health providers is to place patients in the least restrictive environment. This means they should be let out of institutions whenever possible to pursue normal lives. We should respect this, but we must also weigh other factors. Certainly we can't institutionalize everyone, and we shouldn't. Many people with serious mental illnesses go on to live productive lives. But it takes treatment, proper care, and monitoring. I have to wonder whether Weston had enough - or in fact any - of these.

This tragedy was foreseeable - that is - a reasonable person, given the facts, would know something like this could happen. Weston had an obvious target. He told several different people he hated the government, and felt it was out to get him. When we know ahead of time that something like this could happen, we must take steps to prevent it.

The focus should not be on what Weston deserves for what he did, but on what he needed, and did not get. There are many other people right now making threats that are not being taken seriously enough. They need care, observation, and proper medication.

If he were still taking his medicine, and getting adequate psychiatric care, the chances of a violent outburst would be virtually nil. A 1997 issue of The Schizophrenia Bulletin of the National Institutes of Mental Health says the most important factor in getting well is whether or not a patient takes their medication.

This report says doctors should assess every patient as to whether they are likely to continue medication after release. They should create an environment where the patient can openly talk about medication instead of hiding the fact that they may have stopped taking it. Doctors should pick the right medicine and dosage, pay close attention to side effects, and educate the patient and the family about all of these things. Finally, they must enlist support from family, friends, and employers. If all else fails, they must be prepared to go to a judge to have the patient committed for further treatment.

America will recover from this tragedy. Generous hearts will reach out to the widows and children of the slain Capitol Police Officers. Nothing can bring those men back. But opening a new dialog, and demanding new action, could save many lives in the future.

We as a nation must look to the mental health community as the first line of defense for our selves, and for the violent mentally ill. Not everyone with mental illness is violent. But the people charged with treating the mentally ill must step forward and address this issue.

Skip Simpson