Support for LAist comes from
Made of L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

Criminal Justice

The Case For LA Using Unarmed Teams To Respond To Mental Health Related Traffic Incidents

A police officer stands outside the window of a white van on the side of a road with his motorcycle parked behind the vehicle.
Community members and police reform activists have long called for pulling police back from traffic-related incidents.
(Courtesy LAPD Valley Traffic Division via Twitter)
Support your source for local news!
The local news you read here every day is crafted for you, but right now, we need your help to keep it going. In these uncertain times, your support is even more important. Today, put a dollar value on the trustworthy reporting you rely on all year long. We can't hold those in power accountable and uplift voices from the community without your partnership. Thank you.

There's widespread agreement among both Los Angeles city and county leaders that it makes sense to move away from armed law enforcement officers responding to someone in mental health crisis.

But what about when those psychiatric emergencies happen while someone is on the road?

The answer in a draft report commissioned by the City of L.A. is yes, then too. The report, among other things, calls for “unarmed teams of care-centered, behavioral health specialists to respond to traffic-related calls for service when a clear behavioral health issue is present.”

The long-awaited recommendations tie back to a City Council motion that passed back in October 2020. That motion called for a study on the feasibility of using civilian enforcement of traffic laws for motorists and other forms of transportation.

Support for LAist comes from

About the findings

Among the reasons for recommending a shift: “underlying behavioral health issues that can escalate traffic stops.” The city, instead of sending armed LAPD officers, could consider using existing models to respond to traffic-related calls, the report says.

Such models include the Therapeutic Transport Van program, which currently dispatches out of five fire stations across the county. Each unarmed team is made up of a driver, a licensed psychiatric technician and someone who has personal experience with mental illness.

What we know about current use of force

According to the LAPD’s use of force report for 2022, 26% of incidents where officers used force (like shooting someone or striking them in the head) “occurred during field detentions based on officers’ observations (i.e., pedestrian and traffic stops).”

Community members and police reform activists have long called for pulling police back from traffic-related incidents. According to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for ending mass incarceration among other issues, there’s a national trend of cities looking to curtail police involvement in traffic-related incidents and other non-violent calls for service.

A 2022 Brennan Center analysis of the 50 U.S. jurisdictions with the largest law enforcement agencies found that at least 15 jurisdictions created new co-responder programs (which pair law enforcement and unarmed specialists) between January 2020 and July 2022.

“We ask our police to respond to too many calls that they are not trained on, where they might increase the temperature of certain situations,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center, told LAist.

A deadly traffic incident: The case of Keenan Anderson

In January, a traffic-related incident turned deadly after an LAPD officer tased 31-year-old Keenan Anderson multiple times. LAPD Chief Michel Moore claimed Anderson had been involved in a traffic collision and was attempting to flee. In police body-cam video released later that month, Anderson appears distraught and says at one point that someone is trying to kill him.

Support for LAist comes from

An officer can be seen repeatedly tasing Anderson. At one point Anderson says “They’re trying to ‘George Floyd’ me.” Hours after he was tased, Anderson went into cardiac arrest and died at a Santa Monica hospital. Anderson’s family said he was a dedicated English teacher in Washington D.C. and was coping with the recent death of two of his students due to gun violence.

Anderson’s death, as well as two others who died at the hands of police during apparent mental health crises, renewed calls for reform from lawmakers. According to a department spokesperson, the LAPD’s specially trained Mental Evaluation Unit was not called in any of the three incidents.

Let’s fund unarmed professionals, trained in crisis management, care and deescalation to respond to our loved ones,” Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter co-founder — and Anderson’s cousin — said at a press conference outside City Hall in January.

Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter Grassroots told LAist outside of LAPD headquarters in January that the incidents underscored the need for reforms.

“Mental health challenges and crises are not crimes,” Abdullah said. “It’s very easy to get to the solution that we need police out of mental health calls, we need police out of traffic stops and we need to invest those dollars in mental health resources."

In an email, a spokesperson for the L.A. Department of Transportation said the final report on alternatives to armed traffic enforcement is “expected in the coming weeks.”

Next steps: 7 recommendations from the overall report

The report makes the following recommendations:

  1. Increase what they call "self-enforcing infrastructure," in other words, measures that get drivers to slow down and make them less likely to break traffic laws. The report recommends this is particularly needed in traditionally underrepresented communities that historically have not seen the same investments.
  2. Transfer traffic enforcement to unarmed teams to reduce chance of lethal encounters. Two options:
    1. Use a team of unarmed police officers, who are focused exclusively on road safety and not on criminal law enforcement, to enforce safety-related traffic violations (e.g., speeding).
    2. Use unarmed civilians, who are focused exclusively on road safety, to enforce safety-related traffic violations (e.g., speeding).
  3. Find alternatives to traffic fines to make sure low-income people aren't unfairly burdened.
  4. Go even further on the 2022 move to reduce the number of pretextual stops by the LAPD by eliminating "enforcement of non-moving and equipment-related traffic violations by police; remove police enforcement of moving violations that do not demonstrably increase safety based on evidence-based best practices."
  5. Seek buy-in for any changes made out of the findings.
  6. Create "care-based teams" [as covered in this story] to respond to incidents in which mental health appears to be an issue.
  7. Make it easier for problem behavior by officers to be disciplined.

Read the full draft report

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.

Most Read