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

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.

In some circumstances, a less-lethal stun-gun or bean-bag gun might be preferable to using a firearm, Slate said, although he did not know whether the marshals had access to such equipment.

Whatever their training, Slate said he hopes the federal government re-examines how it prepares air marshals to handle people with mental disorders.

"Unfortunately . . . crisis drives policy," he said.

Inland law enforcement officials say they train new officers in handling mentally ill people along with the other police-academy courses in firearms, use of force and search and seizure.

STRANGE BEHAVIOR

There are about 30,000 flights per day into and around the United States, Thomas said. Anywhere from 5 percent to 7 percent of the daily flights across the nation are carrying air marshals, and most of those are international flights, he said.

"If you fly from Ontario to Cleveland, it's more likely you are not going to have an air marshal on the plane, because its not a high-risk flight," Thomas said.

Most details about the Federal Air Marshal Service are closely held. The group has forbidden its members to speak publicly about their jobs and reveals only basic and generally vague information about their methods and training.

Adams said air marshals get two courses on dealing with passengers who act strangely. The first comes during a seven-week program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M. That program is a basic law enforcement session. They get more specific training on unruly passengers later at a training center in Atlantic City, N.J.

Adams said the training deals with strange behavior, but when strange behavior takes a more threatening posture, lethal force quickly becomes an option.

The air marshals date back 30 years to the sky marshal program created to deter hijackings of flights to Cuba.

When terrorists hijacked four planes on 9/11, fewer than 50 marshals were available to guard flights each day.

In November 2001, the newly formed Transportation Security Administration was given 10 months to expand the air-marshal program from a few dozen to several thousand.

According to the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the rapid ramp-up led to shortcuts on training and security clearances. Air marshal training, designed as a 14-week program, was cut to five weeks for candidates with no law enforcement experience. Others had just one week.

In recent years, the Federal Air Marshal Service has sent active officers back for training on some of the skills that were skipped initially.

POTENTIAL FOR CONFLICT

Thomas, the air security author, said that without more information about Wednesday's shooting, it was hard to say whether the Miami air marshals acted appropriately.

Thomas said he expects the number of onboard confrontations between troublesome passengers and air marshals to increase, especially after a planned Dec. 22 relaxation of rules that prohibit air travelers from bringing some types of short-bladed scissors and tools on board airliners.

"If we don't upgrade the training of flight attendants and air marshals to be prepared to be deal with these permitted items, situations like (Wednesday's) will become more frequent," he said.

Adding to the potential for conflict is the rising incidence of air rage and increasing frustration among air passengers, he said.

Data show a direct relationship between the number of onboard disturbances involving passengers and the number of complaints air travelers lodge with the federal Department of Transportation, he said. In recent months, complaints jumped 30 percent as travelers griped about overbooked flights, delays and long waits tied to security, Thomas said.

Huntington Beach firearms instructor Greg Block, whose firm trains law-enforcement agencies, said air marshals lack some of the tools and resources police on the ground can utilize.

Police officers can use their uniformed presence, verbal commands, and other tools such as batons and pepper spray to try to control a situation. They also can call for backup, an option obviously not available to marshals once they're airborne.

The other issue at play in Wednesday's shooting - the plight of the mentally ill - puts attention on what one expert called a poorly funded mental health system that increasingly leaves people untreated.

About 2 percent of the population has a severe mental illness, but about 40 percent of those people are not getting treated, said Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia.

Many states do not allow mentally ill people to be hospitalized involuntarily unless they risk harming themselves or others, she said.

"By law, you're letting people get on planes with severe mental illness," she said.

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Staff writers Lisa O'Neill Hill and Naomi Kresge, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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MENTAL ILLNESS

Californians who may have a diagnosable mental illness: ONE IN 5

Number who may have a serious mental illness: ONE IN 15

In California, emergency calls to sheriff offices related to a mental illness crisis: 9 PERCENT

Nationally, people with mental illness are FOUR TIMES more likely than the general public to be killed by police in justifiable homicides.

Police are more likely to be killed by a person with a mental illness than by someone with a prior arrest for assaulting police or resisting arrest.

SOURCE: CALIFORNIA LEGISLATIVE ANALYST, TREATMENT ADVOCACY CENTER

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COMPARING THE TRAINING REGIMENS

CALIFORNIA PEACE OFFICERS

BASIC TRAINING: A minimum of 664 hours in a police academy required, although most police academies in the state offer between 900 and 1,000 hours of instruction.

CURRICULUM: Officers learn how to use firearms, study criminal search-and-seizure laws, and learn basic police work.

SPECIALIZED TRAINING: After academy graduation, officers are partnered with field-training officers for at least 10 weeks.

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AIR MARSHALS

BASIC TRAINING: Fourteen-week program. Candidates spend first seven weeks at a training center in Artesia, N.M.

CURRICULUM: Basic law-enforcement skills.

SPECIALIZED TRAINING: Candidates spend seven weeks at a training center in New Jersey, where they learn such skills as how to work in the confined space of a passenger cabin. Also, must pass an advanced marksmanship course and spend one week training with an airline.



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