Questions Raised: Are Air Marshals Prepared to Handle Mentally Ill Passengers?

Several mental health experts said law enforcement officers can use other tactics for identifying and dealing with people who are mentally ill - but they need to be trained.


The death of a bipolar airline passenger at the hands of federal air marshals has raised questions about whether the people charged with preventing violence in the skies are adequately trained to handle mentally ill passengers.

Several experts on mental illness and police training said they did not fault air marshals for fatally shooting Rigoberto Alpizar at Miami International Airport. But they suggested the Federal Air Marshal Service should re-examine how it trains marshals to deal with people who act erratically or irrationally due to mental illness or other brain disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease.

"This guy was mentally disturbed; he wasn't a terrorist, and he didn't have a bomb and the air marshals took him down, which is what they are trained to do," said Andrew Thomas, an aviation analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio.

"As it is right now, if an air marshal sees something that he perceives to be a threat to the aircraft, be it a hijacking or a potential explosive, the response is to shoot first and ask questions later," said Thomas, author of two books on aviation security.

Alpizar and his wife had just boarded an American Airlines flight from Miami to Orlando on Wednesday when he bolted from the plane with his arms flailing. Chasing him was his screaming wife - and a federal air marshal.

Witnesses said the man's wife frantically tried to explain that he was mentally ill and had not taken his medication.

Alpizar was shot moments later on a jetway after he apparently reached for his backpack, authorities said. Two air marshals were on the flight, and both fired at Alpizar, federal officials said.

The White House said Thursday that the air marshals appeared to have acted properly when they killed Alpizar, who claimed to have a bomb in his backpack.

Some passengers at Ontario International Airport on Thursday said they supported the air marshals' handling of the incident.

Some faulted Alpizar's wife for not calming him down. They said she should have made sure he took his medication before going into a tense situation like an airplane trip.

If a person's outbursts can't be controlled, that person should avoid mass transit, said Marilyn Rohr, 57, of Bangor, Maine. Rohr said delays caused by the Miami shooting were partly responsible for her spending two days in limbo while traveling between Boston and Ontario.

Another air passenger, Tim Whitacre, said air marshals couldn't be expected to know Alpizar was in the midst of a psychiatric crisis.

"It's not like he had `I'm bipolar and didn't take my medication' tattooed on his forehead," said Whitacre, 25, of Frankford, Mo.

Dave Adams, an air marshals spokesman, said the officers receive some training in dealing with "abnormal behavior." However, when they feel their lives are threatened, they react to forcibly take control, Adams said.

But several mental health experts said law enforcement officers can use other tactics for identifying and dealing with people who are mentally ill - but they need to be trained.

Risdon Slate, a criminology professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, said police officers are used to commanding respect and taking charge of a situation. Someone suffering from a mental illness might not react well to that approach.

"It may not be because someone's trying to be a jerk but maybe because the person's mentally ill," said Slate, who earned his doctorate at what is now Claremont Graduate University in Claremont.

Slate has trained police officers in how to calm someone suffering from a psychiatric crisis. Slate has an unusual perspective on the issue: Like the man killed in Miami, Slate is bipolar. He once was jailed after suffering a psychiatric crisis.

Slate said he doesn't know what kind of training air marshals received in alternatives for dealing with passengers with a mental illness or brain disorder, or whether they had any alternatives other than their handguns.

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