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Should deputies have done more to prevent Isla Vista massacre?

A crime scene investigator emerges from Elliot Rodger's apartment near UC Santa Barbara.
Frank Stoltze/ KPCC
A crime scene investigator emerges from Elliot Rodger's apartment near UC Santa Barbara on the morning after his rampage. Sheriff's deputies conducted a mental health call on Rodger the previous month but found no cause to investigate further.

Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department officials say deputies did not violate state law or department policy last month when they failed to search a weapons database or view reportedly disturbing videos posted on social media sites by the now-deceased Isla Vista mass murder suspect.

But in the days following the May 23 stabbing and shooting spree that left seven people dead and 13 others injured, many are questioning why officers didn’t do more.

"It might have made a difference in this case,” says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA School of Law and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “It could be that the police might have had a different answer to whether he was a danger to himself or others, if they looked at those online postings.

In a statement posted Thursday on its Facebook page, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department says its four deputies and a UC Santa Barbara police officer followed protocol when they visited Elliot Rodger at his Isla Vista apartment in the late evening on April 30.

That  “welfare check” by officers was in response to a call from a county employee who had received a report about Rodger on the mental health department’s toll-free line, the sheriff department says. 

According to the Sheriff’s Department statement: “When questioned by the deputies about reported disturbing videos he had posted on-line, Rodger told them he was having trouble fitting in socially in Isla Vista and the videos were merely a way of expressing himself."

It goes on to say that officers found Rodger to be “shy, timid and polite,” and that they called Rodger's mother during the visit, briefed her on the situation and allowed her to talk with her son.

Based on that information the deputies determined Rodger posed no threat. “Therefore, they did not view the videos or conduct a weapons check on Rodger,” the statement reads.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department did not search a national gun ownership database that would have revealed Rodger owned three handguns. Such searches are typically not required as part of mental health evaluations by law enforcement officers. 

But Winkler and others say the killing spree underscores the need for law enforcement to expand the scope of mental health investigations.

“There’s so much information we put out there on social media and there’s no reason police can’t look through that information," Winkler says. "And they don’t need a search warrant to do so."

Still, such searches are not yet the norm, even for specialized “Crisis Intervention” training provided by law enforcement agencies nationwide, says Michael Woody, president of CIT International, which promotes “crisis intervention teams” in the United States, Canada, Australia and Sweden.

“But obviously with this happening, it’s something that we should probably look at,” Woody says. 

Others say while such protocols may sometimes  help stave off violence, they point out that  law enforcement officers aren't trained to identify severe mental illness.

“Second guessing what law enforcement did or didn’t do in this case is looking at the wrong thing,” says Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center,  a nationwide organization that works toward eliminating barriers to the treatment of mental illness. “What we are asking when we second guess law enforcement is, 'Why didn’t the police operate better as a mental health system?'”

A better focus would be to improve California's existing mental health system, Fuller says.

“Ninety percent of California’s public psychiatric beds are reserved for people who have committed crimes,” she says. “If we want to prevent crime, why don’t we treat people before they commit crimes?” 

Fuller says California’s most seriously mentally ill would be best served by each county adopting "Laura's Law." 

The 12-year-old state law allows California counties to provide court-ordered outpatient treatment to a small subset of the most seriously mentally ill people.

And while Orange County supervisors agreed earlier this month to adopt Laura's Law, rural Nevada County in Northern California is the only other county that has fully implemented the law.