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Rather Than Relying Solely On Police, LA County Wants To Explore Unarmed Response To Mental Health Crises On Buses And Trains

An orange Los Angeles Metro bus drives on a city street towards the viewer. The driver is wearing a mask.
(Courtesy LA Metro)
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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is interested in having Department of Mental Health workers respond to psychiatric crises on Metro’s buses and trains, rather than relying solely on law enforcement.

The Board voted unanimously Tuesday to direct DMH to work with Metro to come up with an agreement for the possible collaboration. The plan is to fund it with Metro dollars.

“Now, when someone has an issue on transit, it’s just law enforcement, that’s the only option we have to respond to issues,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, the motion’s co-author.

“I absolutely think that providing these dedicated mental health response teams to our Metro system will contribute to the county’s overall efforts to divert people from jail and get people the help they need wherever we come in contact with them,” she said.

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DMH already runs or co-runs several psychiatric emergency services in the county, including the Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams (PMRTs). Those teams go out on calls with two mental health professionals with the goal of getting a patient treatment without involving law enforcement.

The unarmed PMRTs could be sent out on Metro calls as part of the agreement, or Metro could opt for a co-response model — like the Sheriff’s Department’s Mental Evaluation Teams — which are made up of an armed deputy and a DMH clinician.

Neither DMH nor Metro has data on the number of mental health crises reported on L.A. buses and trains, but a survey of more than 2,000 Metro riders this summer found that 85% of respondents wanted to see more "social workers and mental health professionals available to offer assistance to riders experiencing homelessness, mental health disabilities, and/or addiction."

To pay for the project, Metro wants “to shift resources from [Metro’s] existing law enforcement contracts,” according to the motion.

Metro’s goal is to launch the project by January.

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In recent months, the county has moved to expand the use of unarmed clinicians for mental health crises and has called for a plan to make PMRTs available 24/7.

But as of this spring, there were only about 30 PMRTs available for the whole county. And even as supervisors move to expand when and where the teams respond, the county is having trouble recruiting and retaining mental health professionals to do the highly stressful job of intervening in and deescalating mental health crises.

A separate measure passed by the Supervisors Tuesday attempts to address the dearth of mental health workers by considering signing bonuses and other incentives.

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Robert Garrova is reporting on the intersection of mental health and law enforcement.