Air raid raises safety and mental health questions

LEOMINSTER, Mass. (AP) – The music blared on a February afternoon as Francisco Torres stopped by a hair salon in Massachusetts and announced he was half angel, half devil.

He wanted a dozen people to come out front and shoot him with an automatic gun stashed in his trunk. Before anyone could understand the request, Torres fled the store and drove away. They never saw a gun and he hasn’t returned.

“I didn’t understand what he was saying, but then I realized he was talking about a gun. I told him there are children here, why are you saying that?” said Saul Perez, who was visiting friends at the store and noticed a clerk called 911, ushered children to the back and closed the store. “I was shocked.”

The incident came about a week before Torres was arrested for assaulting a flight attendant and attempting to open the plane’s emergency door on a United crosscountry flight from Los Angeles to Boston earlier this month.

Confrontations on flights have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, with some altercations being captured and endlessly replayed on social media.

In video captured by a fellow passenger, Torres loudly threatens to kill people and promises a bloodbath before storming the front of the plane, where a group of passengers throw him to the ground to restrain him.

He remains behind bars pending a mental health assessment, with a judge ruling that he “may currently be suffering from a mental illness or defect that renders him mentally incompetent”.

Torres objected to the assessment by his public defender Joshua Hanye, who did not return a call Thursday for additional comment. A relative of Torres declined to comment on the case.

The airstrike was part of a decades-long pattern in which Torres showed signs of mental illness. He spent time in psychiatric facilities, according to lawsuits he filed against two Massachusetts hospitals in 2021 and 2022. Torres says he argued in one of the lawsuits that he was misdiagnosed with a mental illness and in the other that he was discriminated against because he was vegan.

In December 2022, police confronted him at his Worcester County home, where, according to a police report, he stood outside in his underwear and said he was protesting climate change. On another occasion in 2021, police responded to a call from his mother, who reported that he was yelling “death threats” out of a window. He told police that he was in WW3 and that he had a special device that gave him “sonic hearing” that he used to hear his neighbors talking about him.

His case history reveals the challenges airlines and federal agencies face when handling passengers like Torres. Especially since, according to experts, data shows that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime than those responsible for violent crimes.

Despite repeated clashes with police, authorities said he rarely acted violently. He was once accused of grabbing his mother’s arm, but those charges were dismissed. He did not legally own a gun, although he often spoke about guns. And there were no signs of trouble boarding that cross-country flight last month, one passenger said, or during the first five hours in the air.

“He really is a nonviolent offender,” said Leominster Police Chief Aaron Kennedy, who knows Torres from previous clashes. “This guy was pretty mild.”

And even as previous incidents sound the alarm, experts say there’s not much airlines can or should do. Airlines say they do not share banned passenger lists with each other, although there have been a few cases that have been so notorious that the passenger’s name has become widely known.

The FBI maintains a no-fly list for terror suspects on which special agents and other licensed government employees can submit names for consideration.

According to Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, people with mental illnesses are not prohibited from boarding a plane. The federal law gives US citizens “a public right of transit through navigable airspace,” he said.

Legislation backed by airlines and their unions was introduced in Congress last year to create a new no-fly list that includes people who have been charged or fined for interfering with airline crews. The bills died without Senate or House hearings, but supporters plan to reintroduce them later this month.

Several Republican senators opposed the proposal, saying it could be used to punish critics of the federal rule requiring passengers to wear masks — even to “equate them with terrorists.” From January 2021 to April 2022, when the federal mask law was still in effect, the vast majority of airline-reported cases of unruly passengers involved disputes over masks, according to figures from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Some liberal groups also opposed the law, arguing that the current no-fly list of people suspected of terrorism is opaque and unfair.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the government several times over the past decade on behalf of people who didn’t know why they were on the list or how they got removed from it. The ACLU has also accused the FBI of listing some individuals to pressure them into becoming informants in anti-terrorism investigations into Muslim communities in the US

A flight’s captain can decide not to fly with a particular passenger on board, although flight attendants say this usually happens when a passenger appears to be intoxicated.

The government runs so-called “Trusted Traveler” programs like TSA PreCheck, which allow people who have been fingerprinted and passed a background check to speed through security without removing their shoes, belts, jackets and laptops from their bags. People can be denied PreCheck for certain crimes, which extends to those found not guilty by reason of insanity. But of course people who are denied PreCheck can still fly.

Putting travelers like Torres on a no-fly list or banning them from a flight raises a host of logistical and constitutional issues. And determining who would be put on a list would be contentious in a country that prides itself on protecting individuals’ rights and keeping health information private by following strict HIPAA rules.

Also, a “mental challenge” “is not necessarily a prediction that someone will have outbursts, will exhibit unpredictable behavior,” said Lynn Bufka, psychologist and associate chief of practice transformation for the American Psychological Association. “That’s not going to be a good guide as to whether or not someone should board safely.”

Before Torres became agitated and threatened those around him, fellow passenger Jason Loomis said he showed no strange behavior during boarding and was calm early in the flight. Hours later, however, Loomis witnessed its escape. At first he spoke to Torres to calm him down, but as Torres’ anger escalated, Loomis joined other passengers to restrain him.

Still, Loomis said he couldn’t imagine keeping Torres off the flight at all. Instead, he said it was a reminder that society needed to take better care of the mentally ill.

“I know there’s been a lot of talk about aircraft safety these days, but that was a very rare occurrence,” Loomis said. “It wasn’t like he screamed at the airport. He didn’t threaten anything. He was perfectly fine, and then something just broke down.”

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