Laura's Law's reactionary backers demonize progressives

Laura's Law was named after 19-yera-old Laura Wilcox, who was murdered by a mentally ill man.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius often gets things wrong in his columns, sometimes painfully so. Nobody's perfect and we all make mistakes. But what's less excusable is the fact that Chuck's erroneous reporting, prominently presented by his newspaper, almost always serves a conservative political agenda. Even worse is that he won't admit when he gets something wrong, even when directly confronted with accurate information – a cardinal sin for anyone who considers himself a journalist.

I experienced Chuck's incurious intransigence at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, the same day his column on Laura's Law – which Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier is proposing to implement in San Francisco -- appeared in the paper. Laura's Law is a controversial measure that would allow counties to force medication and other psychiatric treatments on individuals who show signs of schizophrenia and other serious mental health issues, but who haven't committed any crimes.

As with a Chronicle editorial the day before, Nevius took an overheated whack at progressives for not wholeheartedly supporting the measure: “Laura's Law, which provides court-ordered mental health treatment for those individuals, is the kind of bold, breakthrough idea the city was once known to promote. But today, when it is considered by the Board of Supervisors, it will face an uphill battle. This is San Francisco at its worst, protecting small constituencies, worrying about legal consequences and letting lobbyists carry the agenda. It is an embarrassment for the city that used to know how to take a courageous stand.”

But none of that was true. The reality is that forcing treatment on mental health patients is an issue that divides that community and raises civil liberties concerns. This is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree, but Nevius's column never aired that perspective, and it didn't even mention that forced medication was an aspect of this law, so I asked him why and whether he understood that.

Nevius vehemently denied that forced medication was part of Laura's Law, even though Dr. James Dillard from SF General Hospital had just testified that “medication is the single most important aspect of this care,” given that the patients involved are often exhibiting psychotic behavior, testimony on which Nevius took no notes and seemed to be playing with his phone during.

So I pulled out my own Iphone and quickly pulled up this recent article by the Chronicle's Kevin Fagan, where the opening sentence defines the purpose of the law as “to compel the mentally ill to take medications.” Still, Nevius didn't believe it, illogicaly quibbling over the definition of "compel," and we stepped out into the hall to argue for a moment. There, representatives for the California Network of Mental Health Clients were gathered to oppose implementation of the law, distributing literature calling it, “an outdated, coercive, unproven, and divisive law that codifies involuntary outpatient commitment.” I left them to educate Nevius and went back inside, but after a few minutes he pulled me out to listen to one guy say that the law didn't have strong enough teeth, thinking this supported his point. But when I asked point blank whether the law was about involuntary treatment, he agreed it was – and still Nevius wouldn't relent.

Now, this is a complex issue, and Laura's Law may actually be a good idea on balance. But rather than relying solely on horrific anecdotes of mentally ill people who commit crimes, as both Nevius and Alioto-Pier are doing, a smart and thorough legislative process will take into account a broad array of issues, including civil liberties concerns.

That's what the progressive supervisors who Nevius tried to demonize did during the hearing, asking many questions for which Alioto-Pier didn't have good answers. Dr. Mitch Katz, who runs the city's Department of Public Health, the agency that would implement the law, opposes Laura's Law but neither Alioto-Pier or Nevius could explain why in a way that made sense, and Katz was out of town during the hearing.

So rather than be pressured by these hyperventilating reactionaries, the board did the right thing and – over Alioto-Pier's objections -- delayed consideration of the item by two weeks, expressing support for the notion of improved pubic safety and mental health treatment, noting that the budget proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom would have slashed mental health treatment services in the city, and asking for more information to reach a well-considered decision.

Nevius loves to paint progressives as wild-eyed ideologues who won't listen to reason, but once again, this episode seems to show that it is this city's so-called “moderates” that are most prone to going off on half-cocked ideological crusades using the most reactionary arguments.