Sudden violent storms are what we expect during a Mobile summer. They blow in suddenly from “out of nowhere” and manage to impress us with their hammering rain, bolts of lightning and crashes of thunder, even though we’ve experienced the show many times before.
I doubt many of us ever give thought to all the atmospheric changes that had to happen for the storm to “suddenly” appear. Storms just are what they are, right? But in reality, there are little clues all around us that things are about to get crazy.
The massive storm last Tuesday was one of those that hit hard and disrupted our lives. It was Election Day on top of everything else, so the duty to vote ran up hard against the desire to stay dry or electricity free. But that storm also brought with it an unusually horrible side effect — its sound and fury served to mask the cries of a woman being brutally attacked in the RSA Tower parking garage.
And when the wind and the rain had gone, a new storm began — a storm of outrage over how the man accused of the attack, Douglas Dunson Jr., apparently slipped through the judicial and mental health system again and again. And while Dunson only stands accused of this heinous attack, the hard facts of his travel through the local system have exposed lapses that — if he is indeed the perpetrator — would leave no doubt the victim was massively failed by the network charged with protecting her.
But the fact Dunson was out on the street and even had the potential to be the one who committed this beastly attack also firmly underlines the larger issue that local authorities are severely hamstrung when it comes to separating dangerously unstable people from the rest of society. In short, since the closing of the state psychiatric hospital Searcy eight years ago, there really isn’t anywhere to put someone like Dunson for very long.
Dunson’s rap sheet is longer than “War and Peace” and it’s pretty evident that when he isn’t either in prison or in a mental facility he’s being arrested at an alarming rate. In 1996 he was sent to prison for 20 years and was released sometime in 2016. By May of the following year he was being frequently arrested and serious attempts were made to get him evaluated for commitment. After he beat his female cousin with a brick, he was sent to EastPointe Hospital in Daphne from September through November. Once he was released, though, the trouble started again.
He’s been arrested several times for indecent exposure, allegedly flashing his genitalia across downtown over and over during this first half of the year. So why he was still on the streets last Tuesday appears to be a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing when it comes to dealing with people like Dunson.
Last year the city implemented guidelines aimed at keeping poor people from being stuck in jail for non-violent offenses simply because they couldn’t pay to bond out. So municipal judges have been allowing non-violents to leave jail on their own recognizance, with the idea being that it lowers the jail population and helps the poor essentially not rot in a “debtors prison.” But according to the city, it’s not supposed to be a revolving door for repeat offenders and those who fail to show up for scheduled hearings, and Douglas Dunson is the patron saint of repeat offender/no-shows.
Since May of last year he’s been released on his own recognizance at least 11 times. He was also released four times by judge’s order, and the last two of those were by Karlos Finley, who is currently the Democratic nominee for Circuit Judge in this November’s general election. So despite the fact the merry-go-round has been spinning for some time, it stopped on Finley and he’s catching a lot of the blame for releasing Dunson.
But in reality, it’s pretty hard to swing a dead cat in downtown Mobile without hitting someone who could have made this a different story and — if Dunson is indeed the perpetrator — saved this young woman from an attack she’ll likely never forget.
Finley seems to have the most fingers pointed at him but argues he was simply following the law, and that cops and victims didn’t bother to sign complaints against Dunson when he was flashing his goods around downtown. And that’s a good point, but it still begs the question of whether some outside-the-box thinking might be required when a guy keeps showing up over and over for that kind of thing, bonding himself out and missing hearing dates. The city essentially says Dunson shouldn’t have been eligible for self-recognizance because of his repeated arrests and no-shows.
And just as a brief aside from someone who has become part of the downtown family this year, the cops’ “ho-hum” attitude about homeless antics and misdeeds isn’t likely to encourage any complainant to spend lots of time pursuing such matters.
The failures are even worse when you consider that over and over again the jail asked for a mental evaluation for Dunson, but he was gone before it could happen on the regularly scheduled day. Despite documents saying this diagnosed schizophrenic was throwing feces at guards and talking about God and exorcists, no new emergency evaluation was called for by jailers, so Dunson just sailed out the door after his 48-hour stay was up.
The big picture is this — the conjunction of mental illness, homelessness and crime is not going away, and short-term hospital stays and group homes are not going to protect society from dangerous people. And it also doesn’t help those people get any better.
The smaller, local picture is that there needs to be more communication between the jail, the police and the courts when there’s a mentally ill person in the community who is an ongoing problem. If the jail has tried several times to evaluate a “frequent flier,” but he keeps leaving before the standard evaluation day, shouldn’t someone either set up an emergency evaluation next time he appears or let the judges know it’s an issue? Shouldn’t the judges notice the guy has become a regular customer and at least set a bond? Shouldn’t the cops be aware of his presence?
There’s no radar to determine what kind of storm someone like Dunson might cause, but if any good can come out of this awful situation, I hope people will pay a little more attention to the signs something bad is coming and not just count on someone else to handle it.