There are a lot of unanswered questions in the case of a Baltimore County man killed by police after he fatally shot three of his neighbors and injured a fourth. Among them: Did 56-year-old Everton Brown have a mental condition that caused him to lash out? So far, all we know now is that people in his Woodlawn neighborhood speculated that was the case. Reports of extreme paranoia and a belief that the CIA, FBI and various neighbors were watching him certainly leave it within the realm of possibility. Other erratic behavior also raises suspicions. The next big question: If he was mentally unstable, why was his condition allowed to escalate to the point of murder?
Baltimore County Police are scouring through the details of his interactions with their department and others over the years, including with its Mobile Crisis Unit, to try to figure out what happened. And they should. We expect a full accounting of how complaints about Brown have been dealt with over the years: Who responded, what interventions were tried, and which ones weren’t? This is necessary because there’s another very big question that we all deserve an answer to: Could these deaths have been avoided?
Such an investigation is also needed in Anne Arundel County, where three adults, including the suspected shooter, were fatally shot and a child injured Monday night in an incident authorities are describing as domestic violence. These types of analyses are crucial in preventing such tragedies from occurring in the future by identifying the tools that could have been used, the barriers that stand in the way of their use and how they can be overcome.
Brown was no stranger to the law enforcement community, and his erratic behavior suggests there was opportunity for stronger action to be taken along the way. Most people with mental illness aren’t inherently violent and can live productive lives with treatment. But untreated illness — whether it be from medication noncompliance, substance abuse problems or lack of awareness of the illness — can increase the risk of violence, studies have shown. What if a missed opportunity to help Mr. Brown could have resulted in a different outcome?
Several peace orders ordering Brown to stay away from certain neighbors were filed against him, including one as recently as May 5, court documents show. But did neighbors know they could have filed a “petition for emergency evaluation” to have him involuntarily committed to a hospital for an involuntary psychiatric admission and possible treatment?
This order can be requested by almost anyone if someone seems to be a danger to themselves and others. And, as one psychiatrist who has written about the complexities of getting people mental health treatment said, Maryland has one of the “broadest definitions of dangerousness.” Even without that leniency, walking the streets with a weapon and threatening people, as neighbors said Brown did, ought to be justification enough to explore the petition. But many people have no idea the option is available to them as average citizens. It’s not just police or a mental health professional who can make the request; others with an interest also can, including those neighbors who noted Brown had terrorized the community. That’s not to blame them for what happened. Certainly, we understand being reluctant to report someone they already fear, if that’s the case. But if tools aren’t being used because they’re not known, the state and counties need to better inform the population.
We also wonder how well the state’s extreme risk protection order was put to use. Law enforcement, family members, cohabitants, intimate partners and medical professionals can petition the court for these orders, which allow judges to take away firearms for up to a year if a person is deemed to be in danger of hurting themselves or others by having the weapons. The person also isn’t allowed to purchase or possess other firearms. Baltimore County police spokesperson Joy Stewart said Brown had one of two registered firearms confiscated in Baltimore in 2010. After that point, he was prohibited from possessing a firearm, yet he remained in possession of the other weapon and police believe that firearm was used Saturday. How is that possible?
We shouldn’t use this incident to demonize the mentally ill or let it foster fear in people, but the system broke down, and that needs to be addressed. Police and others need to do better at informing residents of their options, and not shrug off their responsibility until the person commits a crime, which some neighbors said they were told to wait for. We understand people may be resistant to treatment, and it may take several encounters to get people help. But if the tools aren’t being used at all, they’ll never have an effect.
Our hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones to Brown’s violence after living in fear of him for months and sometimes years. They deserved better. We must learn from their losses to prevent the senseless death of others.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.