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Criminal Justice

This Grassroots Group Hopes To Offer A Way To Avoid Calling Police To Mental Health Crises

A protestor at a rally against the death of George Floyd holds a sign that reads "Care Not Cops."
A protestor at a rally against the death of George Floyd.
((Chava Sanchez/ LAist))
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As the city and county of L.A. explore how to move away from relying on law enforcement to respond to mental health crisis calls, a grassroots group is offering its own solution.

It’s called Community Alternatives to 911 (CAT-911), a three-year-old network of organizers with 15 independent teams spread out from Riverside to Long Beach.

CAT-911 holds workshops with the goal of “really being able to equip ourselves as community members [so] that we can actually support ourselves and support others to deescalate, so we don’t have to call the cops,” explained workshop co-leader Susana Parras during a recent training at Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook.

Parras addressed about a dozen people gathered around park benches near the playground, Afterwards, she told us that “a lot of us actually fear calling the police because we know that situations are lethal at many times.”

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This Grassroots Group Hopes to Offer A Way To Avoid Calling Police To Mental Health Crises

People with untreated serious mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police than other civilians, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. From 2015 through 2019, 25% of people shot at by L.A. policewere perceived to have a mental illness and/or were experiencing a mental health crisis, according to LAPD statistics.

Moments When ‘Cops Are Just Not Efficient’

During the workshop, Parras and a co-faciliatator talked about principles for crisis intervention, how to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis calm down, and the basics of suicide prevention.

At times the workshop felt like a support group for people with family and neighbors struggling with mental health and substance use issues.

“I live in the area,” said participant Martha Martinez. “And I’ve witnessed a lot of moments where cops are just not efficient in their job at all, so I’m curious to see what there is to offer and what there is I can do.”

Assistance For Mental Health Crises Or Support

One of CAT-911’s long-term goals is to set up “community care teams” that could act as rapid responders in crisis situations.

The group understands that there may be times when people need to call 911. “The goal is not to shame people in crisis for their choice to either call or not to call, but to provide alternatives that may be better than what we have,” according to a statement of CAT-911’s values.

L.A. has had its share of crisis calls gone wrong. In March, 25-year-old Isaias Cervantes, who has autism, was critically injured after Sheriff’s deputies responded to his home and one of them shot him during a scuffle.

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"I would love to see us get back to the old school village mentality where you can rely on your neighbors.”
— CAT-911 workshop participant Jocelyn Higa

But can a grassroots effort to offer alternatives to 911 ever get off the ground in Southern California? The answer may lie with our neighbors to the north.

‘Be Available In Real Time’

Asantewaa Boykin founded a volunteer program called Mental Health First in Sacramento last year.

“The ultimate goal of MH First is to prevent police contact with our folks,” she told us. “And sometimes the only way to do that is to be available in real time.”

Mental Health First has a phone number to call and teams of volunteers who work overnight on the weekends in Oakland and Sacramento to respond to crises. Some days they field as many 10 calls, Boykin said.

Six members of Sacramento's Mental Health First team pose for a photo in front of a recreational vehicle.
The Sacramento Mental Health First team.
(Courtesy Mental Health First )

Mental Health First is putting up billboards to try to spread the word about its services.

Meanwhile, there’s a bill making its way through the state legislature that would provide grants for groups like Mental Health First and CAT-911 to continue their work.

“It is incredibly important that we customize deescalated solutions to many of the non-legal, non-criminal crises and emergencies that we see in our communities every day,” said State Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-LA), the bill’s sponsor.

Mental Health First’s Boykin believes Kamlager’s measure is important beyond the funding it might bring.

“It is incredibly important that we customize deescalated solutions."
— State Sen. Sydney Kamlager

“I think it can change the game because it changes the narrative,” she said. “It’s definitely going to shift the conversation around what does being a first responder mean and what does it look like.”

Back at CAT-911’s training in Willowbrook, participant Jocelyn Higa says she’s pleased with the workshop. She's tired of seeing people experiencing a psychiatric crisis killed by law enforcement.

“There has to be some sort of community collaboration, [a] support system,” Higa said. I would love to see us get back to the old school village mentality where you can rely on your neighbors.”

What questions do you have about Southern California?