'They're Only Going To Cause More Harm': The Push To Remove Police From Mental Health Crisis Calls
Amid the calls to defund the police, there's a strong push to rethink the way we rely on officers to handle thousands of mental health crises every year.
Many activists and lawmakers want to largely remove the police from these situations. Some in law enforcement feel the same way.
And some family members of people who have had interactions with police during a mental health crisis are scared of relying on law enforcement for help.
MORE HARM, MORE PAIN
In 2012, Ellie was 16. She was looking forward to a family getaway to Knott's Berry Farm with her cousin, Jose Rodriguez, Jr.
Then Ellie got a call from her aunt: The trip had to be canceled. Her cousin was dead at 14 years old.
"I thought, a car accident or something like that," Ellie said.
But Ellie was shocked to learn that her cousin had been killed by Santa Ana police.
"I was like, he's 14, how do you kill a 14-year-old?"
According to an investigation from Orange County's District Attorney, Rodriguez was holding an unloaded shotgun when officers shot him several times.
"He had been going through a mental health crisis and he wanted to run away from home," Ellie said. "And he ended up getting killed."
We're not using Ellie's full name because she fears it could affect her immigration status. She said this experience affected her view of the police.
"They really should not be responding to these crises because they're only going to cause more harm, they're only going to cause more pain in our communities," Ellie said.
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DEFUSE THE SITUATION
Ellie is not alone in this sentiment.
Across California -- and the nation -- the spotlight on police violence has energized long-standing efforts to stop using law enforcement to deal with people having a mental health crisis.
The council is asking the LAPD to help develop this new model. The department already runs an effort that takes a partial step in that direction: the Mental Evaluation Unit or MEU.
Lt. Brian Bixler heads up the MEU. A big part of its work involves sending out two-person teams -- one officer and one clinician from the Department of Mental Health. They try to defuse the situation and get the person help, rather than arrest them.
"It goes everywhere from a family of a teenager who's cutting... all the way to someone standing on a building threatening to kill themselves, or even a potential homicide scene where somebody has mental illness and has engaged in a really violent act," Bixler said.
Bixler said last year his unit got about 20,000 calls, but it could only respond to about 40% of them.
"Some of that is just to do with geography," Bixler said. "If you're on the west side and you have to get to Hollywood, that's going to be a long duration of a drive... but sometimes, yeah, we just don't have a unit available."
Staffing at the MEU has roughly doubled in the five years Bixler has been on the job. That still means only 17 two-person teams. But regardless of how many teams he has, Bixler feels sending the police is not always the best way to handle a mental health crisis.
"I don't know if we need more units," he said. "But I know we do need more resources for the community to access when it's not a 911 call."
LESS BAD OUTCOMES
Detective Charles Dempsey agrees. He heads up training for the Mental Evaluation Unit.
"A person in a mental health crisis... that's a medical condition," Dempsey said. "And while police are thrust into this role, I gotta be quite honest with you, I think if we dealt with it in the typical medical model and prevention, there would be less bad outcomes."
In recent years, LAPD cops have shot at dozens of people perceived to have mental health issues. Lt. Bixler says last year officers used force more than 500 times on mental health calls.
Chuck Lennon is a social worker who oversees the mental health clinicians attached to the MEU. He agrees that the police don't want to be mental health responders, but isn't sure who would replace them.
"They want to be out of the business," Lennon said. "Okay, you get out of the business. Well, who's going to take over? And that's the biggest challenge."
MEDIC AND CRISIS WORKER
One program that gets mentioned a lot is Cahoots, in Eugene, Oregon. It's run out of a mental health clinic.
Benjamin Brubaker is an administrator at the clinic, and he helps run Cahoots. He said whenever possible, it deploys a team made up of a medic and a crisis worker -- not police. And he believes having a different group that connects people back into resources is key.
"And [being] able to just sit and spend some time with them, listening and helping them process through whatever struggles that they're having I think is really the more appropriate response," Brubaker said.
Another Cahoots staffer told NPR that out of about 24,000 calls last year, the team had to ask for police backup less than 1% of the time.
A MODEL FOR LA?
So could a county the size of L.A. -- with 10 million people -- adopt the Cahoots approach?
L.A. County does have dozens of specialized teams run out of the Department of Mental Health. They're somewhat similar to Cahoots since they don't involve police. But advocates say there aren't nearly enough of them, and they have slow response times.
"Would we like to have less law enforcement response and more mental health clinical response to crisis? You bet," said Mark Gale, Criminal Justice Chair for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in L.A. "The question is, how do you get it done?"
Gale said, for one, there will be a need for highly specialized mental health professionals who have been trained to de-escalate. But that kind of investment might be difficult during COVID-19, when budgets are being cut.
There are some grassroots projects. Ellie, who lost her cousin in the police shooting, works with a group called Community Alternatives to 911 that educates people on resources for those going through a mental health crisis.
"Our goal is to have folks be skilled in those different areas so that we don't have to resort to calling police," Ellie said.
Ellie has a neighbor who sometimes has mental health episodes. She doesn't call law enforcement, though. She said she's scared of her neighbor getting shot.
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