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Criminal Justice

Fatal Deputy Shooting Highlights The Need To Stop Using Police For Mental Health Crises

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy sits in a patrol car in a file photo from 2016. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
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L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies were sent out on a “medical rescue/suicidal person call” in East L.A. Sunday. The man who prompted the call ended up dead. While details are still scarce, the incident is yet another example of why reform advocates -- and law enforcement -- want to get police out of the mental health business.

Deputies arrived at the 100 block of North Rowan Ave. to find a man with a kitchen knife inside a car, according to a Sheriff’s Department statement. It said he ignored their commands to exit the vehicle. A Mental Evaluation Team (MET) — which consists of a specially-trained deputy and a Department of Mental Health clinician — was dispatched.

But the department said before the team could arrive, the still unidentified man got out of the car holding the knife, ignoring commands to drop it, even after deputies used a “less than lethal stun bag.”

It said the deputies opened fire when the man charged at them with the knife. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died.

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The episode raises the question of whether the situation might have had a peaceful outcome if the Mental Evaluation Team had made it in time.

The patrol unit requested the MET "about three minutes" after it was notified of the call, said Sheriff's Lt. John Gannon.

The department's approach since 2018 has been to have MET teams "co-respond and arrive as close to the same time as possible with patrol,” Gannon said. But the deputy who works on the MET at the East L.A. station was out sick on Sunday, so the next closest team was dispatched from Lakewood, he said.

The episode highlighted “the downside to not having enough units," Gannon said. The department has 33 MET units, but that's not enough to fully meet the need, he said.

The LAPD recently launched a pilot program designed to dispatch its Mental Evaluation Unit teams — comprised of an officer and a mental health worker — at the same time as officers responding to the initial call. And the city of L.A. has committed itself to developing an unarmed model of crisis response that would divert non-violent calls for mental health and substance use situations away from law enforcement.

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