By now, you’ve probably seen the photo of Assemblyman Steven Brooks with his shirt off. It’s a hazy photo, maybe taken with a cell phone, of Brooks bare-chested, staring at the camera, lips parted, arms outstretched in a Christ-on-a-cross manner — seemingly unaware that his provocative pose, his toplessness, is a strange state for a politician to be photographed in.
The image, which was taken during Brooks’ first interview since being released from jail, ran last week on the front page of the Review-Journal, with a story by reporter Benjamin Spillman.
Brooks was arrested Saturday, Jan. 19, for allegedly threatening Nevada Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, saying her “first day as speaker would be her last.” Brooks was reported to have been driving around with a gun, looking for Kirkpatrick. That evening, Brooks was arrested in Las Vegas on a felony charge of intimidating a public officer by threat of physical violence. A gun, as well as 41 rounds of ammunition, were found in his car.
Since Brooks’ arrest, other scandalous details about the assemblyman have emerged: He has run-ins with gangs, he fights with neighbors, he acted “a little strangely” and walked out during a recent finance committee meeting. In his talk with Spillman, Brooks indicated he still thinks Kirkpatrick wants to harm him.
The photo, like the story itself, is bizarre and captivating. But rather than seeing this sad saga for what it is — a national problem manifesting close to home — many of us have treated Brooks as a freak show, an opportunity for a public laugh.
It is time to stop laughing.
Through snarky tweets, nasty reader comments and newsroom jokes, we’ve dismissed Brooks’ behavior as comical, deserving of ridicule; we feel licensed to treat Brooks this way because nothing came of his delusions, no one was hurt. But what if something had happened? Would it still be funny then? The answer is no.
Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, in which a mentally ill man shot and killed 20 children and six adults, gun control and mental health have skyrocketed to the top of the national conversation. Now, here we are in Las Vegas, faced with a case that is a blatant, loud-and-clear intersection of these two serious issues — and we gawk.
Even Kirkpatrick, the target of Brooks’ alleged threats, has mocked him. In a story last week, R-J reporter Ed Vogel wrote that Kirkpatrick mimicked his “Jesus-on-the-cross” photo, then said she wants to put it behind her and move on.
The fact remains: By every appearance, Brooks is a mentally ill man who has access to guns — and Kirkpatrick, for that matter. In her interview with Vogel, she said Brooks would not be banned from the Legislature.
The day before he allegedly threatened Kirkpatrick, Brooks was seen at Seven Hills Behavioral Center, a mental-health facility. In the police report detailing his arrest, his wife, Ada Brooks, told officers that Brooks’ condition has been deteriorating. “Ada also told me that during the last few months her husband’s mental health has been getting worse and she is worried about him,” the report states.
Add to this Brooks’ fondness for firearms. The gun he was carrying when he threatened Kirkpatrick was not his own. He is now claiming he has an armed bodyguard, and also cited Second Amendment rights in his conversation with Spillman.
On Friday, Brooks was picked up by police and taken in for an emergency mental health evaluation after he was reported to have been swinging a sword and “acting bizarrely” at a relative’s house.
Brooks was hospitalized under a Legal 2000, an emergency measure that allows people to be held for evaluation by physicians and psychologists for up to 72 hours. After the initial 72-hour hold, a mental health court reviews the person’s case and decides whether he or she should be free to go, or should be committed for up to six months. A patient can also choose to stay at the hospital voluntarily.
As of press time Tuesday, Brooks remained in care, although his lawyer, Mitchell Posin, declined to say where. It is unknown if he remained in care voluntarily or was committed. It is also unknown whether Brooks will attend Legislature when it begins on Feb. 4, though he is still eligible and has not been banned. The Democratic Caucus relesased a statement Tuesday, saying: “Steven Brooks is a member of the Nevada Assembly. While the situation with regards to him is fluid and we will respect his needs for privacy and care, the work of the Assembly will go on whether or not he is able to join us at the start of the session.”
At least one public official has come to Brooks’ defense and believes he should be paid in his absence and should be allowed to attend Legislature if he wants to. City Councilman Bob Coffin told the Review-Journal he believes the Assembly should give Brooks a chance and “see if he is capable of functioning.”
Brooks is an ill person, who is a husband, father, former teacher and coach. Still, he has clearly demonstrated delusions and an attachment to firearms. We, as a society, have the opportunity here to help someone, and possibly to prevent people from getting hurt. In many ways, this presents a test case for Nevada. If we can’t figure out how to help a guy who is imploding so spectacularly in full public view, how can we create a system to that will help quieter, less visible cases?
It’s human nature to laugh off tragedy that doesn’t happen, just as it’s human nature to wonder, when it does happen, why we didn’t see it coming.
Regardless of how we ultimately address this, one thing is for certain. We should not laugh, and we should not simply move on.