Another Step In LA's Vow To Reduce How Often Armed Officers Respond To Non-Violent 911 Calls

A faded sticker on an LAPD patrol vehicle displays the 9-1-1 number. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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A Los Angeles City Council committee met Friday to consider next steps for a major rethinking of how 911 calls are handled. The proposal: A crisis response program that sends social workers or health professionals to some 911 calls, instead of armed LAPD officers.

The plan was first introduced early in the summer, when the council was scrambling to respond to a groundswell of protests over police killings and systemic racism in law enforcement.

Councilmembers have submitted a number of motions, including a $150 million cut to the LAPD's $1.8 billion operating budget. There were also several proposals designed to limit the involvement of police in traffic enforcement or non-violent situations that call for supportive services, rather than armed law enforcement. The idea, proponents say, is to connect people to effective help rather than get them involved in a costly and punitive criminal justice system.

"I'm as giddy as a school boy. I cannot wait to begin," said Committee Chair Herb Wesson at the start of the meeting. "Because I truly believe... that we're going to send a message throughout this country."

The Ad Hoc Committee on Police Reform recommended issuing a request for proposals from nonprofit organizations to operate a pilot program. The goal would be to determine how 911 operators could dispatch "contract service providers and specialists for non-violent calls" in situations including "mental health, substance abuse, suicide threats, behavioral distress, as well as providing conflict resolution and welfare checks."

The recommendations will now go to the full city council for a vote.

NEXT STEPS FOR THERAPEUTIC VAN PILOT PROGRAM

Also Friday, the committee asked for more information on a proposed "Therapeutic Van Pilot Program." That program would partner the Los Angeles Fire Department, LAPD, the Department of Mental Health and a nonprofit group to station mobile teams of mental health specialists at fire stations.

Callers during the public comment period were universally supportive of reducing police presence in mental health, homelessness or substance abuse calls, but expressed skepticism about the city's follow-through.

"Alternatives to police will only succeed if properly funded and available in every neighborhood," said Pastor Byron Smith with Community Coalition. He added during public comment he's concerned about a "slow-walked" piloting process. "When police are called to a mental health crisis, they are operating outside of their scope of practice."

Wesson pushed back: "The actions that we take today are not just reports. These are action items," he said. "This is a time for us to say politics be damned."

Councilmembers heard a city analyst report, which noted Los Angeles police already have special units for responding to mental health or domestic violence calls that pair armed officers with service providers from other agencies.

But the report looked at programs and proposals in other cities that remove law enforcement from that equation, including Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, and Stockholm, Sweden — many of them based on mobile crisis response teams established in 1989 in Eugene, Oregon. Those units respond to 17% of calls for service in the city and operate 24/7.

"It's effective. It makes the city more safe," said Robin Petering, a social worker and organizer with the community group Ktown for All. She called in to share her experience as a homeless outreach worker for the Eugene program. "We had a better ability to meet the needs of our unhoused neighbors...it would save us a ton of money as well."

Groups including Black Lives Matter - LA have long been advocating for the city and county to "reimagine" public safety by shifting public resources away from police towards programs like conflict mediation, homeless services and mental healthcare.