As soon as I heard that a passenger had been shot and killed by an air marshall on a jetway after arriving on a flight to Miami, the first thought that ran through my mind was “suicide by cop.” As mental health professionals know, suicide by cop is a phenomenon in which a mentally ill person “deliberately seeks to create a dangerous situation so that police are forced to shoot” (see NAMI for more information).
What made this thought come so quickly to mind was not the fact that a man making bomb threats was shot by a law enforcement officer. After all, we live in days when heightened security is heightened for a reason, and for the officers involved not to have treated the situation with the utmost seriousness could have resulted in ever more loss of life. No, what made me think that this passenger, subsequently identified as Rigoberto Alpizar, might be mentally unstable was where he was when he made his threat. Having passed through all the screening that airline travel requires these days, one would think that the likelihood of actually having a bomb would be quite low.
Individuals with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often experience irrational thought and erratic behavior. Such symptoms are especially pronounced when the person is not taking the medicaiton that helps keep these symptoms at bay.
Sadly, it seems that my initial thought may have been correct — at least as far as Mr. Alpizar’s mental condition was concerned. His widow, who was on the plane with him, reports that he had bipolar disorder, but unfortunately was not taking his medication at the time of his death.
Many police departments throughout the country now include special training on how to deal with people with mental illness. Some even have special Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) that can be called in to deal with dangerous situations, working to ensure that a psychiatric crisis does not become a criminal event. The Memphis (TN) police department has been a leader in this area for more than two decades. Hopefully, future training for air marshalls will include this special training so that no one else suffers the fate of Rigoberto Alpizar.