Airstrike raises questions about security and mental health

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LEOMINSTER, Mass. — The music was blaring one February afternoon when Francisco Torres walked past a Massachusetts barbershop, proclaiming that he was half angel, half devil.

He wanted a dozen people to come out of the store and shoot him with an automatic weapon stored in the trunk of his car. Before anyone could understand the request, Torres fled the store and left. They never saw a gun and he didn’t come back.

“I didn’t understand what he was saying, but then I realized he was talking about a weapon. I told him there are children here, why do you say that?” said Saúl Pérez, who was visiting friends in the store and noticed that an employee called 911, took the children to the back and closed the store. . “I was scared”.

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

In-flight confrontations have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, with some altercations captured and replayed endlessly on social media.

In a video taken by a fellow traveler, Torres loudly threatens to kill people and promises a bloodbath before attacking the front of the plane, where a group of passengers tackled him to the ground to hold him down.

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

Torres objected to the assessment through his federal public defender, Joshua Hanye, who did not return a call Thursday seeking additional comment. A family member of Torres declined to comment on the case.

The attack on the fly was part of a decades-long pattern in which Torres displayed signs of mental illness. He spent time in mental health facilities, according to settled lawsuits he filed in 2021 and 2022 against two hospitals in Massachusetts. Torres says he argued in one of the lawsuits that he was misdiagnosed for mental illness and, in the other, that he was discriminated against for being a vegan.

In December 2022, he was confronted by police at his home in Worcester County, where he was outside in his underwear saying he was protesting climate change, according to a police report. On another occasion in 2021, police responded to a call from his mother reporting that she was yelling “homicidal threats” out of a window. She told police that he was in World War III and had a special device that gave him “supersonic hearing,” which he used to hear his neighbors talk about him.

His case history demonstrates the challenges airlines and federal regulators face when handling passengers like Torres. Especially since experts say data shows that people with mental illness are more often victims of crime than perpetrators of violence.

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

“He’s really a nonviolent offender,” said Leominster Police Chief Aaron Kennedy, who is familiar with Torres from previous confrontations. “This guy was pretty smooth.”

And even if past incidents raised red flags, experts said there’s not much airlines can or should do. The airlines say they do not share prohibited passenger lists with each other, although there have been some cases so high-profile that the passenger’s name became widely known.

The FBI maintains a no-fly list for persons suspected of terrorism, to which special agents and other approved government employees may submit names for consideration.

People with mental illnesses are not prohibited from boarding a plane, according to Jeffrey Price, an aviation safety expert at Denver Metropolitan State University. Federal law gives US citizens “a public right of transit through navigable airspace,” he said.

Legislation backed by the airlines and their unions was introduced in Congress last year to create a new no-fly list that includes people charged or fined for interfering with airline crews. The bills died without hearings in the Senate or House, but supporters plan to resubmit 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, including to “equate them with terrorists.” From January 2021 to April 2022, while the federal mask mandate was still in effect, the vast majority of airline-reported unruly passenger cases involved disputes over masks, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures.

Some liberal groups also opposed the legislation, 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 to get removed from it. The ACLU also accused the FBI of listing some people to pressure them to become informants in anti-terrorism investigations targeting Muslim communities in the US.

The captain of an airline flight may decide not to fly with a particular passenger on board, although flight attendants say this often happens when a passenger appears to be drunk.

The government runs what it calls “trusted traveler” programs, like TSA PreCheck, which allows people who are fingerprinted and pass a background check to speed through security without taking off shoes, belts, jackets and laptops from their bags. People can be denied PreCheck for certain crimes, which extends to those who are found not guilty by reason of insanity. But of course, people who are denied PreCheck can still fly.

Adding travelers like Torres to any no-fly list or banning them from a flight raises a host of logistical and constitutional questions. And determining who would get on a list would be controversial in a country that prides itself on protecting individual rights and maintaining the privacy of medical information by following the strict rules of HIPAA.

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

Before Torres became agitated and threatened those around him, passenger Jason Loomis said he did not exhibit any unusual behavior during the boarding and was calm at the start of the flight. However, hours later, Loomis witnessed the outburst of him. Initially, he talked to Torres to try to calm him down, but as Torres’ anger rose, Loomis joined other passengers in restraining him.

Still, Loomis said he couldn’t imagine keeping Torres off the flight in the first place. Instead, he said it was a reminder that society needs to take better care of people with mental illness.

“I know there’s been a lot of talk about aircraft safety these days, but this was a very rare thing,” Loomis said. “It wasn’t like I was yelling at the airport. He wasn’t threatening anything. It was perfectly fine and then something broke.”

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