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The airstrike raises questions about safety and mental health


LEOMINSTER, Mass. — The music was blaring one February afternoon when Francisco Torres stopped by a barber shop in Massachusetts, proclaiming that he was part angel, part devil.

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

“I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I realized he was talking about a gun. I told him there were children here, why are you saying that,” said Saul Perez, who was visiting friends at the store and noted that an employee called 911, brought children in back and closed the store. “I was afraid.”

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

Confrontations over flights have exploded since the start of the pandemic, with some altercations captured and replayed endlessly on social media.

In video taken by another passenger, Torres loudly threatens to kill people and promises a bloodbath before charging into the front of the plane, where a group of passengers tackle him to the ground to restrain him.

He remains behind bars pending an assessment of his mental health, with a judge ruling that he “may currently suffer from a mental illness or 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 further comment. A relative of Torres would not comment on the matter.

The mid-air attack was part of a decades-long pattern of Torres showing signs of mental illness. He spent time in mental health facilities, according to lawsuits closed since he filed in 2021 and 2022 against two Massachusetts hospitals. 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 a vegan.

In December 2022, police confronted him 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 he was shouting ‘threats of homicide’ from a window. He told police he was in World War III and had a special device giving him “super sonic hearing”, which he used to listen to his neighbors talking about him.

His case history demonstrates the challenges that airlines and federal regulators face when processing passengers like Torres. Especially since experts say data shows that people with mental illnesses are more often victims of crime than those responsible for acts of violence.

Despite repeated run-ins with police, authorities said he rarely acted violently. He was previously accused of grabbing his mother’s arm, but those charges were dismissed. He didn’t 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 of the flight.

“He is truly a non-violent offender,” said Leominster Police Chief Aaron Kennedy, who knows Torres from previous confrontations. “That guy was pretty sweet.”

And while past incidents have raised red flags, experts said there’s little airlines can or should do. The airlines say they do not share banned passenger lists with each other, although there have been a few cases so high profile that the passenger’s name has become widely known.

The FBI maintains a no-fly list for terrorist suspects, to which special agents and other approved government employees can submit names for review.

People with mental illnesses aren’t banned from boarding a plane, according to Jeffrey Price, an aviation safety expert at Metropolitan State University in Denver. Federal law grants U.S. 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 of people 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 “frame them as terrorists.” From January 2021 to April 2022, while the federal mask mandate was still in effect, the vast majority of unruly passenger cases reported by airlines involved disputes over masks, according to figures from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Some liberal groups have also opposed the legislation, arguing that the current no-fly list of terror suspects 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 be removed. The ACLU also accused the FBI of putting certain people on the list to entice them to become informants in counterterrorism investigations against Muslim communities in the United States.

The captain of an airline flight may 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 what it calls “trusted traveler” programs such as TSA PreCheck, which allows people who have fingerprints and pass a background check to expedite security without removing 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.

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

What’s more, having a “mental health challenge” is “not necessarily a prediction that someone is going to have fits, have unpredictable behavior,” said Lynn Bufka, psychologist and deputy chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association. “It will not be a good marker to determine whether or not someone should board safely.”

Before Torres became agitated and threatened those around him, another passenger, Jason Loomis, said he showed no strange behavior during boarding and was quiet during the start of the journey. flight. A few hours later however, Loomis witnessed his explosion. Initially, he spoke with Torres to try to calm him down, but when Torres’ anger escalated, Loomis joined other passengers in restraining him.

Still, Loomis said he couldn’t consider 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 and security these days, but that was a very rare occurrence,” Loomis said. “It wasn’t like he was screaming in the airport. He wasn’t threatening anything. He was perfectly fine and then something snapped.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.