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Domestic Violence, Mental Illness and the Arrest of Track Palin

Sarah Palin’s comments last week about her sons arrest for domestic violence and weapons charges gave me a reason to think. It may seem obvious for a criminal defense lawyer to come up with a defense for someone who has been arrested but let me offer this opinion about domestic violence.

The way in which police respond and deal with domestic disturbance in most of the country is awful. While many cases do require fast action by law enforcement and arrest there are countless cases where so many non-arrest solutions were possible.

I don’t have all the facts of the Track Palin case and really no one except the people involved will ever know the situation. In the Palin case, it appears that a combination of alcohol and mental disturbance culminated in a dangerous situation. Mr. Palin’s wife allegedly suffered injuries and the police decided the proper action was arrest.

In looking at new reports about statements made by Palin’s wife it seems that the potential use of an AR-15 rifle was a real threat. Track Palin allegedly cocked his weapon and placed it to his head threatening to take his own life.

Anyone who has received training in domestic violence knows the red flags that come up in the most serious cases. The combination of alcohol, mental disorder, and a weapon is almost too obvious a concern to ignore.

Sarah Palin’s comments and defense of her son, however, raise a broader question about how police respond to domestic violence calls. The State seems only willing to employ blunt instruments. A Domestic disturbance call means 6 officers arriving at a home; ready to arrest the most likely perpetrator.

What if there was a better way. What if instead of approaching every situation as a crime in progress there were first responders aware of the intricate and complicated mental problems that millions of American’s suffer. While the Palin case involves allegations of actual violence and guns, most domestic violence cases are different.

The police, however, are not trained to come into a home and assess mental conditions. A war veteran suffering PTSD is no more likely to get assistance in such a scenario than a drunken abuser who has caused serious harm to a spouse or child.

I can’t say I agree with Sarah Palin about anything. However, I can’t ignore the issues she raised about how those who suffer from the mental disease are treated by the criminal justice system. I have had numerous domestic violence cases where my client was attempting to calm a loved one who suffered form mental illness. The combination of alcohol and other recreational drugs makes an already volatile individual dangerous and unstable. A person seeking assistance from the police to calm the situation is then faced with a group of officers entirely incapable and untrained for anything other than safety and arrest. It is not uncommon for the person seeking assistance from police ends up getting arrested.

It is truly sad to see the cases. I defend cases where I wish there had been a PERT team to respond instead of the police. The psychiatric emergency response is something that should be prioritized by law enforcement in every city.

The tragedy in many cases extends beyond actual domestic violence. Family’s are destroyed by violence in the home. However, it is unfortunate that the State has made so little effort in finding a solution to disturbance calls other than law enforcement.

When the government’s response to every call for help is with armed officers ready to arrest we should not be surprised when our jails continue to overflow.

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