Police unit gets public health responsibility for mentally ill


Lieutenant Lionel Garcia – lead officer of Mental Evaluation UnitMaya Sugarman/KPCC

The Los Angeles Police Department’s mental evaluation unit is the largest mental health policing program of its kind in the nation, with 61 sworn officers and 28 mental health workers from the county…

Officer Ted Simola and his colleagues in the unit work with county mental health employees to provide crisis intervention when people with mental illnesses come into contact with police…

Triage duty involves helping cops on the scene evaluate and deal with people who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

The triage officers are first and foremost a resource for street cops. Part of their job entails deciding which calls warrant an in-person visit from the unit’s 18 cop-clinician teams. These teams, which operate as second responders to the scene, assisted patrol officers in more than 4,700 calls last year.

Sometimes their work involves high-profile interventions, such as helping S.W.A.T. teams with dangerous standoffs or talking a jumper off a ledge. But on most days it involves relieving patrol officers of time-consuming mental health calls…

That’s the right approach, says Peter Eliasberg, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The goal is to make sure that people who are mentally ill, who are not a danger to the community, are moved towards getting treatment and services as opposed to getting booked and taken into the jail.”

Detective Charles Dempsey is in charge of training for LAPD’s mental evaluation unit. He says pairing a cop or detective with a county mental health worker means the two can discuss both the criminal justice records that the health worker isn’t privy to and the medical records that a cop can’t access because of privacy laws.

About two-thirds of the calls are resolved successfully, he says…

But there are complicated cases, too. And these, Dempsey says, are assigned to the unit’s detective-clinician teams. Dempsey says most of the 700 cases they handled last year involved both people whose mental illness leads them to heavily use or abuse emergency services, or who are at the greatest risk for violent encounters with police and others.

“Jails were not set up to be treatment facilities,” says Mark Gale, who serves as criminal justice chairman for the LA County Council of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People get worse in jail.”

Gale and other mental health advocates praise the LAPD unit’s approach and call it a good first step. But for diversion to work well, they say, the city and county need to provide treatment programs at each point a mentally ill person comes into contact with the criminal justice system — from interactions with cops all the way through the courts.

Of course, there used to be a system that provided much of this treatment – The US Public Health Service and a chain of national PHS hospitals across the country. Ronald Reagan did his level best to close them all down. He didn’t get all of them – but, he did succeed in evicting tens of thousands of mentally ill patients and putting them out on the streets.

RTFA for anecdotal examples of the work being done by the LAPD.