Everton Brown believed that drones were following him. He thought the FBI was breaking into his house to feed his dog and worried the authorities were tampering with his computer.
That’s according to records kept by Baltimore County police, whom Brown called more than 100 times over the past 24 years. Neighbors, too, called police to the Woodlawn neighborhood. They say Brown harassed them and yelled from his porch through a bullhorn.
Despite decades of encounters with local authorities, Brown’s actions continued until they had tragic consequences. Last Saturday morning, police say, Brown, 56, set fire to his home, then shot and killed three neighbors.
Now the killings are prompting questions about how Maryland handles cases of people who may be in a mental health crisis.
“This recent incident has been the fear and concern that I’ve had for a long time,” Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford told members of a state commission on mental and behavioral health Tuesday.
The commission is among those who have been wrestling with Maryland’s law on involuntary psychiatric commitments, which has standards that are among the strictest in the nation.
Efforts to change the law, including a bill in this year’s General Assembly session that would have expanded the definition of who is dangerous enough to be forcibly hospitalized, have been opposed by critics worried about violating individual rights.
It’s not clear what interventions police or those who knew Brown may have tried over the years or whether he was ever diagnosed with mental illness. Attempts to reach his family were unsuccessful.
But the shootings and fire came amid continuing debate in Maryland over how to get help for people who don’t want treatment. There’s also discussion by the state and local governments about how to better connect people in crisis to mental health services rather than treating their needs as a police matter.
Little is publicly known about Brown. He was licensed as a commercial driver in Maryland until 2019 and had owned his home in the Parkview Crossing town house community since 1996, public records show.
County police say Brown had “numerous” contacts with law enforcement, including with the department’s crisis team. Three peace orders had been filed against him since 2008, they said.
The police department did not answer questions from The Baltimore Sun about whether the officers ever took Brown to a hospital for an emergency psychiatric evaluation or how many times he interacted with the crisis team, citing state laws about the confidentiality of health records.
County police also have not said whether an “extreme risk protective order” was ever sought for Brown, telling The Sun that “the investigation is continuing at this time.” Such orders temporarily require someone who is a danger to themselves or others to surrender firearms and prohibits them from purchasing any.
One neighbor has said that Brown sometimes would walk up and down the sidewalk with a gun. Police said Brown used a handgun registered to him in the killings.
Legislation introduced this year in the General Assembly would have changed the standards for when someone can be admitted involuntarily to a mental health facility. Under current law, that can happen only if someone presents a “danger” to themselves or others and other treatment is not appropriate.
The measure introduced this year would have significantly broadened the definition of danger, allowing involuntary admission if a person is unable to care for their basic needs or if there is a major risk that they would suffer substantial deterioration without treatment. It also would have allowed involuntary admission for those “reasonably expected” to present a danger.
Critics of the current law say it often stops people who don’t recognize they are ill from getting timely treatment. Others say making involuntary treatment easier could lead to unnecessary and traumatizing hospitalizations and infringe on patients’ autonomy.
Maryland Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, introduced the unsuccessful 2021 bill. He said current state law offers no guidance on what “danger” means, so it is often interpreted to require overt threats or acts of violence or self-harm.
Under his bill, Kipke said, if Brown’s actions before the shooting showed he was deteriorating mentally, that could have provided a basis for hospitalization.
The bill followed a recommendation from the mental health commission chaired by Rutherford, the lieutenant governor. In a 2020 report, the group said Maryland should “develop a clear and unambiguous standard for determining when individuals in crisis pose a danger to themselves and others.”
As it turned out, the group had a previously scheduled meeting three days after the Woodlawn shootings, at which Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt and county health officer Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch were on the agenda to discuss the county’s crisis response system. The “horrific incident” as Hyatt called it, made the presentation particularly timely.
“We frequently, sadly, learn after a crisis that the community knew that an individual needed resources, and the police maybe attempted to assist,” Hyatt said.
She advocated for a community referral system in which families or neighbors could call something other than 911 to report mental health concerns.
“So, our goal is to build resources in place for increasing contacts with these individuals, making sure they’re going to appointments, taking medications, before they get to the crisis moment,” she said. “The hope is by being proactive, keeping them safe, that hopefully we can ultimately prevent that flashpoint crisis moment.”
As cities and counties try to expand and improve their crisis response efforts, debate over state law for involuntary commitment is likely to continue.
Kipke said he withdrew his bill because it was “highly controversial” among groups that included the ACLU. He plans to introduce it again next session after working with all sides to address concerns, he said.
The state health department in a letter to lawmakers said it supported the intent of the legislation, but that the measure was too broad.
Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications for Behavioral Health System Baltimore, which oversees mental health treatment in the city, also said the bill overly broadened the definition of who can be involuntarily committed, an action that should be used sparingly and when other options have been exhausted.
”There’s a ton of resources in the community,” she said.
Breidenstine said involuntary commitment can result in people being hospitalized unnecessarily or swept up into the criminal justice system. That, she said, only adds to an unfair perception that everyone with mental illness is violent or criminal.
One review of epidemiological research said that while some people with serious mental illness are somewhat more likely to commit violence, most are not violent. It found that only 4% of violence in a given year is associated with serious mental illness.
”A lot of people with mental illness are not dangerous,” Breidenstine said. “They’re not going to harm you. They’re more likely to be victims than perpetrators.”
And, she said, “we do know that inpatient commitment is used disproportionately for people of color and Black people.”
But some advocacy groups say Maryland sets the bar too high to involuntarily admit someone, and that without treatment, some people are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
Many families are desperate because they can’t get help for loved ones with severe mental illness who don’t consent to treatment, said Evelyn Burton, advocacy chair for the Maryland chapter of the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America.
“It leaves them helpless,” Burton said.
Psychiatric laws vary widely across the country.
“We like to say that we’re running 50 different experiments with mental health care in this country,” said Geoffrey Melada, spokesman for the Treatment Advocacy Center.
In a 2020 report, the center ranked Maryland the worst in the nation for its psychiatric laws, citing factors including the standard for involuntary admission and the lack of what is known as “assisted outpatient treatment” for severe mental illness, in which the court orders someone to undergo treatment in a community setting. Maryland is one of only three states that does not have that.
A Baltimore pilot program for assisted outpatient treatment started in 2018. It does not impose penalties on those who fail to adhere to the court-ordered treatment plan.
Efforts are underway in both the county and in Baltimore to connect more people with services by diverting some 911 calls to mental health professionals rather than police. Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. recently announced an expansion of the county’s mobile crisis teams, which include mental health professionals and specially trained police officers.
Maryland law allows family, friends, neighbors and others to petition for an emergency psychiatric evaluation for someone. One neighbor whose family filed for a peace order against Brown said they did not know there was another option.
In addition, the state’s extreme risk protective order law, often referred to as a “red flag” law, lets police, family members, housemates, intimate partners and medical professionals petition a court for an order to temporarily seize someone’s guns and prevent them from buying firearms.
Raising awareness of these existing tools is crucial, said Dr. Arkaprava Deb, a psychiatrist in Baltimore.
“We want the community to know about these interventions,” said Deb, who also works on gun violence prevention issues with the advocacy group Doctors for America.
Deb said that he has seen people with severe mental illness who, with treatment, go on to graduate school, marriage, homebuying and otherwise “thriving” in life.
“Recovery is a lot more attainable than the public believes,” Deb said.
Deb said mental health providers and public health professionals hope to learn more from the investigation of the Woodlawn case. His key questions include whether Brown had a diagnosed mental illness and, if he did, whether he had any clinical interventions in the past year.
The case deserves a hard look, mental health advocates say.
“Clearly, the system failed this individual, his neighbors, the people that he hurt and killed,” said Dan Martin, senior director of public policy at the Mental Health Association of Maryland.
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Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon and Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.