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Unarmed Response Teams


Topline:

When a person living with mental illness is in crisis — the kind that requires some kind of intervention — it’s often better for a clinician to respond than law enforcement.

That’s because the mere presence of a police officer or sheriff’s deputy at such a scene can escalate the potential danger for all involved, according to use-of-force experts. And those encounters can turn deadly.

Why it matters: The Los Angeles Police Department, like agencies in many cities around the country, provides training for its officers on de-escalation tactics, but the shootings keep happening despite efforts to provide alternative response teams that include mental health clinicians.

The backstory: An LAist analysis of LAPD data showed that since 2017, 31% of people shot at by police were perceived by officers to be living with some kind of mental illness or in crisis.

What’s available: In both the city and county of L.A., it can be hard to keep track of the different types of alternative response teams that can be called to respond when someone is in crisis. Here’s a breakdown of what’s offered:

When a person living with mental illness is in crisis — the kind that requires some kind of intervention — it’s often better for a clinician to respond than law enforcement.

That’s because the mere presence of a police officer or sheriff’s deputy can escalate the potential danger for all involved, according to use-of-force experts. And those encounters can turn deadly.

The Los Angeles Police Department, like agencies in many cities around the country, provides training for its officers on de-escalation tactics, but the shootings keep happening despite efforts to provide alternative response teams that include mental health clinicians. An LAist analysis of LAPD data showed that since 2017, 31% of people shot at by police were perceived by officers to be living with some kind of mental illness or in crisis.

There are psychiatric emergency teams in cities throughout L.A. County. But the teams differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction on composition and approach.

In both the city and county of L.A., it can be hard to keep track of the different types of alternative response teams that can be called to respond when someone is in crisis. Here’s a breakdown of what’s available:

City of L.A.: Unarmed Crisis Response Pilot Program

The city partnered with three local nonprofit organizations — Exodus Recovery, Alcott Center and Penny Lane Centers — to provide two response teams in each of three service areas spread across L.A. The teams are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week within the Police Department’s Devonshire, Wilshire and Southeast service areas.

The teams are dispatched from 911 call centers when appropriate.

Crisis response workers have training in de-escalation techniques, mental health, substance use, conflict resolution and more, according to a report from the Office of City Administrative Officer. They don’t have the authority to order psychiatric holds for people in crisis, but can work to find local help and follow up where appropriate.

City of L.A.: Crisis and Incident Response through Community-led Engagement (CIRCLE)

The CIRCLE program, run by nonprofit Urban Alchemy, involves a team of mental health professionals and staff with lived experience who respond to non-violent incidents that involve people who are unhoused.

The idea is to relieve police of what they call “quality of life” calls like trespassing or loitering. The teams respond to thousands of hotline calls each month that come to the nonprofit instead of police.

Last year, Mayor Karen Bass noted that CIRCLE, which launched in Hollywood and Venice in 2022, has since expanded to downtown L.A., South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Members of the public can access CIRCLE through the non-emergency line at (877) 275-5273 or (877) ASK-LAPD. Choose the non-emergency dispatch option.

City of L.A.: SMART units

Two-person teams that fall under the Police Department’s Mental Evaluation Unit are made up of an LAPD officer and a clinician from the county Department of Mental Health. The teams respond to mental-health related calls along with patrol officers whenever possible.

Officers who are already on scene can request a SMART unit if they feel a person they are trying to contact is living with mental illness or in crisis. SMART, which stands for Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, responded to “less than a third” of mental health-related calls in 2022, according to department records. Historically, the program has struggled to hire enough clinicians to meet demand, according to LAPD officials.

L.A. County: Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams

These two-person teams of clinicians will likely be the response you get if you call the county Department of Mental Health directly to request help someone in crisis. They do not show up with weapons. However, if a person in crisis is placed on a psychiatric hold and is unwilling to go into care, the clinicians may call for assistance from law enforcement.

To reach the Department of Mental Health for services and support, call (800) 854-7771. In the event of a mental health, substance abuse or suicide crisis, you can call or text 988.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Teams

The sheriff’s Mental Evaluation two-person teams are made up of a sheriff’s deputy and a clinician from the Department of Mental Health. The teams are specially trained to de-escalate mental health crises.

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?

One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.





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