NYC officers' shootings point to mental health and guns

Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were simply doing their sometimes-dangerous jobs Saturday evening as they sat in their parked New York City patrol car in Brooklyn.

It might have been a quiet night, routine, boring almost, but the officers knew that could change at any moment in the “city that never sleeps.” Indeed, New York was once fearsome in places, in Manhattan and other boroughs, owing to the close quarters of the population and the uneven performance of the police.

Then Rudolph Giuliani came in as mayor and toughened up the laws, sometimes his critics said to the infringement of civil liberties, but New York became a safer place. Tourists felt safe in walking the streets even late at night, and after Sept. 11, 2001, Giuliani became something of a heroic legend.

But Ramos and Liu knew that no matter how much better things had gotten in New York, they were on the front lines of risk. On Saturday, the two officers were gunned down as they sat in their car. It was a senseless and cruel act by an individual, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who later killed himself.

New York officials report he had a history of criminal activity and of posting anti-government and anti-police statements online.

A mentally ill shooter

There’s no way to know the motivation for certain, but Brinsley’s virtual lashing out turned terribly real amid tensions raised by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York. The two men, both black, died after encounters with law officers, Brown from being shot and Garner after a “chokehold” was applied.

Demonstrations followed, most peaceful. A national debate focused on whether police use unnecessary force against blacks.

But should Brinsley’s horrid actions be interpreted as some kind of twisted protest?

No. He appears to have been a deranged individual with a litany of problems, and his act of “vengeance” may instead have been an internal explosion of violence, with Ramos and Liu the innocent and convenient objects of Brinsley’s twisted anger.

And there are other questions that arise here, though any attempt to answer them doubtless will be shouted down by the likes of the National Rifle Association. But the question must be asked: How is it that someone who clearly had mental problems could get access to firearms and ammunition? The NRA, among other pro-gun, anti-regulation advocates, is forever saying that gun laws are adequate and that any additional ones would represent threats to constitutional rights.

A must-have conversation

And yet here we are two years after 20 children died at the hand of a mentally ill man in Newtown and with a recent multiple murder case in Pennsylvania, again involving a man with mental problems.

There should be no liberal-versus-conservative debate here. The issue of mental illness and guns and the connection thereof isn’t political in any way. But it must be discussed with urgency.

For now, in the wake of the New York shootings, it appears that an individual’s instability had more to do with his twisted reasoning and his violence than whatever feelings he might have held about the police actions in Missouri and New York.

It’s true to some degree that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t help matters with comments that appeared critical of police following the chokehold incident in his city. But he did strongly come out in support of New York’s finest after this tragedy, and he didn’t deserve the criticism Giuliani and others delivered, including that coming from the head of the city’s police union who said the mayor has the officers’ blood on his hands.

Civil rights leaders were appropriate in expressing their outrage at the shootings of the officers, just as they protested the recent deaths of the two black men in Missouri and New York.

But even when the heated rhetoric subsides, this country will need to discuss the intersections of violence and racial tensions and law enforcement and mental illness and guns that continue to affect virtually all regions of the country. That is a dialogue that must take place.