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Criminal Justice

Police Shootings In 2021 Underscore Calls For Unarmed Response To Mental Health Crises

A woman at a Black Lives Matter protest carries a sign that reads "Care Not Cops."
There is increasing support for police to use mental health specialists instead of armed officers.
(KPCC)
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On the evening of Dec. 18, LAPD officers responded to what the department said was a report of a man armed with a knife near the intersection of Adams and Griffith in South L.A.

Officers opened fire on Margarito López, killing him. The department said in a statement that officers launched two foam projectiles at López and ordered him to drop the knife before they used live rounds.

López’s family later told news outlet Univision that the 22-year-old had a mental disability and needed psychological care.

The shooting appears to be the latest example of a bad outcome resulting from law enforcement involvement in a mental health crisis.

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In October, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said one-third of people shot by officers up to that point in 2021 were perceived to have a mental illness, up from roughly one-fifth last year.

Because of absences related to COVID-19 and other issues, LAPD Capt. Brian Bixler said in an email that the department has about 10 of its specially-trained Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU) teams deployed daily. Those two-person teams made up of a mental health worker from the L.A. County Department of Mental Health and an armed officer try to de-escalate situations and avert bad outcomes.

It’s not clear if officers on scene requested an MEU before López was fatally shot, but LAPD spokesperson Drake Madison said in an email that “the incident escalated quickly, and a Mental Evaluation Unit was not at scene” before the shooting took place.

LAPD wants to employ a total of 17 MEU teams next year. But some police reform advocates are pushing to have law enforcement removed from the equation entirely.

Meanwhile, L.A. County plans to add more teams to its unarmed response. And cities across the region are working on, or have already launched, their own alternative crisis response efforts.

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“Unfortunately, public policy decisions to close needed treatment beds and antiquated treatment laws that disincentivize early treatment have forced law enforcement to become our de facto mental health safety net,” Geoffrey Melada, Director of Communications at the non-profit Treatment Advocacy Center, said in an email. “This wastes community resources, overburdens law enforcement and criminalizes what is a medical condition: severe mental illness."

Maleda’s organization advocates for more mental health treatment options, as well as non-law enforcement responses to mental health crises.

A 2019 national survey of law enforcement departments by the Treatment Advocacy Center found mental illness response and transport takes up about one-fifth of officer time.

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