Activists Seek to Change the Relationship Between Mental Health and Policing
By: David Mendez
On June 15, Kendrick Sampson testified alongside four other members of the People’s Budget L.A. coalition to make his pitch: that the city of Los Angeles must listen to the will of the people — or at least the respondents to the People’s Budget survey — and defund police.
“We know that ‘public safety’ is not policing. If policing kept us safe — you’ve got tons of police in the ‘hood, right? Fortune 500 CEOs would line up, waiting for spots in the hood. And they’re not, because it doesn’t keep you safe,” Sampson told five members of the Los Angeles City Council, who convened a special meeting for the presentation.
What does keep people safe, he and his allies say, is putting people in a strong position to begin with: allowing support and pathways to jobs, shelter, housing, education, and healthcare. “We haven’t ever prioritized mental health in this country,” he said.
The movement to defund policing is based on giving communities the tools to restore themselves by divesting existing agencies and investing in community-based programs that keep people from falling through the cracks.
“We have to invest in prevention, not reaction,” Sampson said.
Law enforcement officers agree. But they also believe that the programs that are in place help those they’re designed to help. And they argue that defunding police will force cuts in programs that help people in crisis — programs such as co-responding mental health crisis teams, where police and trained mental health clinicians will jointly go to the scene of mental health emergencies to de-escalate emergencies and get people the help they need.
In 2016, the Redondo Beach Police Department, in association with neighboring police departments in Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach, set up a co-response model with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to respond to homelessness.
“We were realizing, especially as homelessness was increasing, that we had to get experts onto the streets,” RBPD Chief Keith Kauffman said. “But dealing with someone in crisis is sometimes not safe… we took an officer and said ‘your job is to ride in a car with a mental health clinician and handle calls for service for people who are mentally unstable.’”
Multiple officers volunteered, and before long, the city deemed the program a success; the program spread north as El Segundo joined the beach cities police departments’ agreement, and expanded to two of the department’s clinicians working with the four police departments.
The co-response model was not pioneered by RBPD, but it’s one of a handful of programs that Redondo has adopted to help sensitive populations. Most prominently, the city prizes its programs providing resources to survivors of domestic violence and aiding people experiencing homelessness.
“Our officers that work with the homeless and with mental health clinicians… they’re all working together to solve this issue. Resources are constantly crossing over,” Kauffman said. “But when people say ‘defund the police,’ these are the things that would be the first to go.”
Defunding police, Kauffman says, would force departments to scale back proactive programs that also use officers to mitigate the risk of violence at emergencies.
He believes activists should instead work with law enforcement to adjust their strategies and better fit the needs of the community. Police departments such as those in Redondo Beach and Hawthorne — Kauffman’s previous employer — have ad to “community-based policing” models that seek first to establish relationships through repeated contact, openness, and accountability. Many of the techniques Redondo uses are rooted in an Obama-era task force on 21st century policing.
The results, Kauffman admits, are not necessarily tangible.
“Agencies will say, how do you prove that’s successful? Is it an increase in arrests, a decrease in calls for service? I’d say they’re asking the wrong questions,” Kauffman said. “I say, did you build a relationship? If you accomplish that, you get the public to see you as a person and your officers to see your community as humans, not problem areas. It’s very hard to hate someone when they’re face to face.”
The problem, activists say, is in the institution of policing.
“It’s almost poetic that in the last few days, we’ve seen the show ‘Cops’ canceled — we’re talking about a 30-year cultural project uplifting police officers as the solution… and now it’s time to say we need to move in another direction,” Mark-Anthony Johnson said.
Johnson is a board member of Dignity and Power Now, an organization that works to end incarceration and advocates for incarcerated people, their families, and their communities.
“When we say ‘defund,’ we mean to move budget line items… [police] do not serve our safety, but we know what serves our safety. We want to see significant reductions in those budgets, and we believe that’s possible,” Johnson said.
“What the People’s Budget is encouraging, and has made so clear, is that we have a society that’s ready to throw away Black people in crisis — and people are ready to shift those priorities.”
The People’s Budget L.A. presents itself as a measure of the priorities of everyday residents of Los Angeles. The second edition of the People’s Budget was released on June 15 alongside a dataset with results from 10,000 survey responses. According to the budget’s report, survey respondents were least interested in allocating general funds to law enforcement and policing — just 1.64 percent of this hypothetical budget would go to policing.
Respondents were most interested in investing in universal aid and crisis management — such as housing, food, and healthcare.
The 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reported that 66,433 people in Los Angeles County were experiencing homelessness in January. “Most people that the homeless system helps house stay housed,” states the report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, indicating that 22,769 people were moved into permanent housing in 2019.
“Even with the significant gains made in placing people into housing with services, it is not keeping pace with those Angelenos falling into homelessness. We need to solve for both,” LAHSA Commissioner Jacqueline Waggoner said in a statement included with the report. “That requires us to increase our housing supply. It requires us to get upstream to transform our foster care, health care, criminal justice, and other systems to stop them from pushing people into homelessness. And it requires us to center solutions in racial equity so that we can dismantle the legacy of racism that still shapes our region’s vast inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity.”
To Johnson, society must help build stronger relationships among community members as well as infrastructure to support the community.
“It’s building out more community-based treatment, more housing, and permanent supportive housing,” he said. “Communities are looking for structural responses where our folks are in crisis, and there is not a law enforcement response, not an armed response, not a non-lethal weapon response.”
Here’s the thing about mental health calls: Police are involved because the public doesn’t know who else to call.
“I’ve told people since I got this job five years ago, my goal is to work us out of a job,” Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Brian Bixler said. Bixler is the officer in charge of LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit, and he wants police to get out of the job of responding to families in crisis. “But no one else is coming — those resources don’t exist here.”
The Mental Evaluation Unit is tasked with responding to mental health crises and has been since the program began in 1992. But because there’s nothing simple about mental health calls, the unit has a five-pillar response system in place: Training, triage, crisis response, follow-up, and outreach.
As of February, nearly 3,100 LAPD officers have undergone a 40-hour mental health intervention training course, co-taught with the Autism Society of Los Angeles, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the County Department of Mental Health. The course provides an overview of mental health disorders, crisis de-escalation and communication techniques, and simulations to test their knowledge.
The goal, Bixler said, is to make sure that every officer in LAPD knows how to identify mental health issues. “We know in the city of Los Angeles, the most available resource is a police car,” with one about two to three minutes away from anywhere in the city.
As patrol officers arrive at a mental health call, the unit’s triage desk either helps those front-line officers determine the next steps or deploys SMART units — Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Teams, consisting of a Department of Mental Health-based mental health clinician and one to two LAPD officers.
Once the situation is stable, the unit helps determine whether the person will be taken into custody and booked for a crime (for felonies and high-grade misdemeanors) or taken in for an involuntary mental health hold. The decision is left to the local station’s watch commander.
From there, officers work with the District Attorney or the City Attorney’s office on mental health diversion plans — essentially allowing a person with a mental health disorder to waive their right to a speedy trial and enter a guilty plea in exchange for the opportunity to complete treatment in order to have the charge dismissed. Follow-up teams of detectives and clinicians maintain contact with high-risk, high-recidivism individuals, while outreach officers work with the community to offer training and direction to mental health resources.
“We just keep trying to make it better and provide better service to the community,” Bixler said.
Today, LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit has 83 officers assigned to its immediate-response teams, nine investigators following up on high-risk individuals, and five officers as training staff.
When they’re fully deployed, the unit runs out 17 SMART teams daily — although they’ve been hamstrung by the pandemic, which has forced mental health clinicians away from fieldwork.
When asked about the assertion of activists, whether mental health clinicians could do the job by themselves, Bixler offers a surprising response: Yes.
“Look at the County’s Psychiatric Mobile Response teams,” Bixler said, describing an existing program similar to the Mental Evaluation Unit’s crisis teams — only without police officers. “I’ve advocated that if we had more of those resources, in my opinion, we’d have less 911 calls.”
Most families know their loved ones’ mental health patterns, and know when they may be nearing a break, he said. But 911 doesn’t get called until the situation is dangerous. With more resources, those calls could be diverted before they become violent.
“There just aren’t enough,” Bixler said. “People always call 911, and the only people to respond is us.”
“The thing is, most people have been trained to call 911 in distress,” said Vincent Atchity, the executive director of Mental Health Colorado. Mental Health Colorado runs the Equitas Project, which advocates for mental health and criminal justice reform. “There are entities that do mobile outreach, but you need to find your way to them.”
When asked about unarmed community crisis response models, one program immediately jumps to Atchity’s mind: the CAHOOTS program, in Eugene, Oregon, which works with public safety agencies but deploys to crisis scenes independently. Dispatchers in the Eugene 911 system will route calls for service to nonviolent situations to CAHOOTS, and a two-person team of a medic and a mental health crisis worker will respond. According to the organization, police backup was requested only 150 times out of 24,000 CAHOOTS deployments.
Atchity believes that the focus on mental wellness in large cities is a positive development spreading throughout the country.
“I don’t know if I can go so far as to say that half of all agencies are showing signs of progress in that regard. There’s enough in major agencies that suggests movement in the right direction,” Atchity said.
Atchity is a fan of LAPD’s unit that responds to mental health calls, and respects Bixler’s work, he said. But the idea that the department has, at most, 17 crisis response teams available to cover Los Angeles’s 469 square miles at a given time, leaves him wanting more.
“Looking at it that way, what they have is a beautiful little show program, but it’s so disproportionally inadequate to the needs of the community that the impact is limited,” Atchity said.
Nicole Watson is one of the two Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Clinicians assigned to co-respond to mental health calls with the beach cities’ police departments: Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and El Segundo, and is a veteran of LAPD’s SMART teams.
“From the outside looking in, you may think it’s an odd pairing…and it is, in a sense,” Watson said. “But it works. I’ve been doing it for about seven years, in the crisis field working with law enforcement, and I love it.”
When she’s in the field on a call, and she recognizes that a person or a family has a low risk of violence, she’ll share information on resources such as the County’s Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams, to avoid involving the police. Like others, she said there’s a lack of knowledge that additional resources are available. “Regardless of what’s going on, we’re there as an option for them, and it helps them knowing that they have multiple options.”
Watson believes that the relationship between law enforcement and the Department of Mental Health both increases an officer’s knowledge of mental health resources and brings down incarceration rates.
“They exist for a reason, and it’s because they’re effective, and they work on getting people the help they need, and keeping everyone, police officers and community members, safe,” Watson said. “They’re reducing uses of force and injuries and other horrible things that we don’t want to happen.”
When asked if she believes she could respond to calls without an officer alongside her, she said that it depends — that every call is a risk assessment, that you can’t always remove the risk factor when someone is in a mental health crisis.
“There’s unpredictability that occurs when you don’t know someone,” Watson said. “But there are circumstances where the risk is low, and the option for police may not have been necessary.”
The teams have their roles and their separate duties, Watson said. When a call has gotten to the point where an officer draws a firearm, she follows her police officer partner’s commands and drops back. If she can, she’ll keep communicating with the person in crisis.
“Even though I have only one or two times witnessed someone being tased, I’ve not been present for anyone being shot or injured. I understand it may come with the territory the longer I stay in the field,” Watson said. “I try to do my best to do my job in avoiding those situations, or helping to prevent it from getting to that point.”
Johnson is not convinced the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit is a perfect solution.
“When we talk about divesting, we’re talking about divesting not only resources but authority and legitimacy. The reason why we have [mental evaluation teams] is because law enforcement has been positioned as the response to every social ill,” Johnson said. “I’m 100 percent certain that teams that are not co-deployed with law enforcement are highly effective.”
Local leaders are listening. On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn moved for the Department of Mental Health to explore establishing unique numbers for non-law enforcement crisis calls and reconfiguring emergency dispatch to more effectively triage nonviolent crisis calls.
And on Wednesday, in a motion before the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Police Reform, Los Angeles City Council member Herb Wesson moved for city staff to submit a report on alternative crisis intervention models, specifically citing CAHOOTS as a program to observe.
“If we’re serious about being impactful, or making real change, then this is our moment. And I’m not going to miss this moment,” Wesson said Wednesday. “I am excited to maybe create a world that my kids and grandkids can live in that is better than the world I have lived in for over 60 years.”