A recent apartment fire in the Seattle area could have been prevented had law enforcement been empowered to provide true help to a man in mental distress.
Four people were taken to the hospital and over eighty people displaced when fire engulfed an apartment building in SeaTac on July 10. Residents had little to no time to grab belongings, several had to be rescued from second- and third-story units, and cars were damaged and destroyed in the flames.
Michael Scott Rengstorff, a resident of the complex, was arrested for arson and placed under a $200,000 bail.
Earlier in the day, police officers had visited the apartment to assist a crisis response team in getting Rengstorff mental health treatment at St. Anne Hospital in Burien. Rengstorff was uncooperative. Under the newly-signed HB 1310, the officers had no choice but to leave Rengstorff as he was because he was deemed no imminent threat to himself or others, despite his having been treated at St. Anne Hospital earlier in July after threatening the lives of family members.
HB 1310 prohibits the use of physical force when there is no “imminent threat of bodily injury,” and requires that officers leave the area “if there is no threat of imminent harm and no crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed.”
Rengstorff may not have been an imminent threat, but he was a ticking time bomb to the entire apartment complex.
The police reform package signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee in May was intended to improve law enforcement procedures, including the interaction between police officers and the seriously mentally ill. But good intentions fail if not paired with effective policy.
Take, as another for instance, the story of Sedro-Woolley police officers spending over two hours with a man suffering from a mental illness and/or drug abuse last June. Because of the new legislation, there was nothing they could do for the man who was out of his mind as he stripped down to his underwear, licked sap from a tree, and ripped apart his own vehicles.
He was of no imminent harm to others but – considering the SeaTac apartment fire – imminent harm doesn’t mean completely harmless. Not only that, but here was a man in desperate need of medical attention, either in the form of mental health treatment or drug abuse services (or both). The state’s so-called compassionate reforms, however, left him to fend off his delusions by himself.
How did we get here?
Our country has been failing the seriously mentally ill since deinstitutionalization, a process in the 1950s and 1960s in which psychiatric facilities were closed en masse. The idea had been to replace those facilities with community-based care, a dream that was never fully realized, leaving many mentally ill without the medical care and housing support they need. These intended reforms in Washington State only worsen an already broken system.
Prior to the policy changes, police officers had more authority to apprehend someone before the situation escalated to a crime (even before an imminent threat). But even then, officers faced difficulties finding hospital beds for the seriously mentally ill. Since 1955, our nationwide psychiatric bed count has plummeted 97%. Amazingly, we have the same number of beds now as we did in 1850 when our population was one sixteenth its current size (i.e. 21 million then compared to 332 million today).
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), 50 beds are required per every 100,000 in the population at minimum to care for the mentally ill population. Even the state with the highest number (Wyoming with 34.3 per 100,000) fell well below the threshold. Washington State, when assessed by TAC in 2010, was at 18.1 per 100,000.
The bed shortage crisis contributes significantly to our homeless and incarcerated populations. Without an adequate supply of beds, staff, and other resources, the mentally ill are abandoned to the streets, jails, and prisons. According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice report, “the largest psychiatric inpatient facilities in the United States are the county jails in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.” And the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported in 2019 that “20.5% of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. have a serious mental health condition.” Some local jurisdictions report that as many as two-thirds of their homeless populations suffer from a severe mental illness.
Rengstorff can now be added to those statistics – a man in great need of medical attention now incarcerated. And why? In short, because resources are limited, because state law prevents officers from providing help to those in need before serious crimes are committed, and because well-intentioned reforms fail to meet the actual need.
Rengstorff – and the apartment building of eighty-plus residents in which he lived – deserves better.