LOS ANGELES – The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to increase the number of law enforcement teams that include mental health clinicians, aiming to double resources on the street.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger recommended funding more “mental evaluation teams” and adding a triage help desk for deputies dealing with individuals suspected of having a mental illness.
“Proactive engagement that includes a mental health expert will reduce confrontations and provide access to treatment for individuals in crisis that may lead to a full recovery,” Barger said. “Expanding this vital program will also help law enforcement in its effort to avoid violent incidents, protect the public and save lives.”
The county piloted such co-response teams in the early 1990s and since then, the Department of Mental Health has partnered with 35 law enforcement agencies to develop teams with mental health expertise.
Sheriff’s MET teams responded to 1,154 calls from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, Barger said in her motion, co-authored with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Roughly two-thirds of the time, those calls resulted in hospitalizations for mental health treatment and fewer than 1 percent resulted in an arrest, according to the motion.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department currently has 10 MET teams and wants 23 plus the triage desk.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell told the board that 23 teams represented the “very minimum” necessary to “do what’s right, do what’s compassionate.”
About 10 percent of law enforcement calls are estimated to involve individuals who are mentally ill, Barger said. She cited a USA Tuesday report that mentally ill individuals are 16 percent more likely to be killed by police and account for one in four of fatal police encounters as proof that these incidents are high-risk.
Even when encounters don’t turn deadly, advocates say those with mental illness are often jailed for minor crimes when treatment would serve them best.
DMH Director Dr. Jonathan Sherin read a letter from District Attorney Jackie Lacey to the board about her experience riding along with sheriff’s deputies in a mental evaluation team.
The team was first called out to deal with a man swinging a baseball bat, who Sherin said was a “classic first-break psychotic.” Later in the ride-along, the deputies encountered a man suffering from delusions who had called in a bomb scare. In both cases, the men — who could have been arrested for their actions — received treatment and were not taken to jail.
Lacey called the expansion of the MET teams “an idea whose time has come.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis called for a simultaneous review of operational guidelines followed by the MET teams, telling her colleagues that the teams were doing a good job of diverting mentally ill individuals into treatment rather than jail, but not as successful in de-escalating violent confrontations.
Solis speculated that was because co-response teams often weren’t deployed in situations with armed suspects or where the potential for violence was obvious.
The board directed the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission to consult with the LASD, DMH and the inspector general on possible improvements to the deployment model that would continue to keep mental health workers safe.
A report on funding for the expansion of MET teams and related services is expected in 60 days.