Derb and K-Lo, for the past 40 years or so we’ve had state laws that make involuntary commitment extremely difficult. Individual autonomy triumphed over public safety. You may recall the case in the mid-1990s of the “wild man of 96th St” in New York. Larry Hogue terrorized an entire neighborhood in Manhattan. Here is an excerpt from my book Do-Gooders.
Hogue announced his presence in the neighborhood by strewing trash over the sidewalks and inserting gasoline soaked rags into the gas tanks of cars parked along 96th street. He would also break off the cars’ side-view mirrors. When he had smashed one New Yorker’s car windows for the second time, she pressed charges. In response, he threatened her with a lead pipe and leapt out at her at night. He chased another woman into the vestibule of her building, screaming and pounding on the glass when he could get no further. Hogue hurled cinder blocks through the windows of the Christian Science Church, causing $10,000 in damage. And he shoved a 16-year-old girl into the path of an oncoming truck, which had to swerve wildly to avoid her.
Though Hogue was arrested at least nine times, he failed to serve longer than a year for any offense. And his tour of the mental health system was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. . . .
When a group of neighbors asked for a meeting with Hogue’s medical team, they were astonished at what they were told. As Heather MacDonald reported:
The hospital staff told the victims that they were unable to hold him ‘because of his rights.’” . . .
A breezy Robert Levy of the New York Chapter of the ACLU offered, regarding the Hogue case, “Society can’t eliminate risk.
Now here we are. The usual standard for involuntary commitment to a mental facility is “danger to oneself or others.” As the Hogue example demonstrates, in some cases, the bar was set ridiculously high. Clearly we don’t want to lock people up for being loners or weird or even for peculiar writings. As someone pointed out, Steven King was a college student sometime. But when family, roommates, teachers, and mental health professionals all see warning signs, as happened in this instance, the case for some period of involuntary commitment seems pretty strong to me.
The community has rights too, and consider the consequences. If we are too zealous about treating the mentally ill, we err on the side of depriving someone of his liberty for a period of weeks. If we err in the other direction, 32 innocent lives may be lost.