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City Of LA To Partner With County On Unarmed Mental Health Crisis Response

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Psychiatric Technician Connie Villareal inside a county "therapeutic transport" van. (Courtesy L.A. Dept. of Mental Health)
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The city of L.A. is partnering with the county on a pilot program that uses mental health experts to respond to people having a mental health crisis.

The County Department of Mental Health has a fleet of five vans which will be staffed by mental health experts and equipped with TV monitors that allow the patient to connect with a psychiatrist remotely, all while in-transit. While staff has been hired for the program, the so-called ‘therapeutic transport vans’ have yet to be deployed.

Under the new city pilot program, county mental health specialists will be based at five L.A. city fire stations. They’ll be integrated into the 911 system, although officials did not have details on which calls will be directed to them.

The pilot is set to begin Jan. 1.

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“A lot of the things that we’re doing — and this in particular — represent a responsiveness to … what the communities need and frankly what the communities are demanding,” said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the Department of Mental Health.

This year’s grassroots movement to reduce police funding has included a strong push to move away from relying on armed officers to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis — an idea that has strong support among law enforcement.

The LAPD and Department of Mental Health already operate the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU), which consists of two-person teams — one officer and one mental health clinician — that try to defuse mental health crises and direct the individual towards treatment instead of jail.

On Monday, LAPD chief Michel Moore praised the new partnership.

“Rather than looking to yet another program from LAPD, or LAFD, to engage in, it’s pulling things off of our plate and putting them with our mental health professionals,” he said. According to the LAPD, the MEU received about 20,000 calls in 2019.

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Unarmed mental health response could prevent other crises from happening, said Eunisses Hernandez, co-executive director of La Defensa, a non-profit that works on alternatives to incarceration. She pointed to the deputy shooting of a person apparently experiencing a psychiatric crisis at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center earlier this month.

Update: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that the County Department of Mental Health already operated a therapeutic transport van program. While it did have five vans and staffing available, the teams had not yet been deployed.

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