LA County moves forward on re-imagining 911 call-in system

A new call system isn't imminent, but mental health officials have been directed to start identifying ways to shift mental health crisis calls away from police

By Ryan Carter
Daily News, Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County continued its push Tuesday to re-think the 9-1-1 system, propelled by a care-first, jails-last approach to emergency calls for service across the region.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously directed the Department of Mental Health to begin identifying ways to shift mental-health crisis calls away from law enforcement and toward mental health services personnel.

An actual new call system is not imminent. But the action Tuesday did set in motion the design of a new system that would be anchored by a regional call-in center network, beefed up crisis mobile response teams and a larger network of “crisis receiving” facilities across the county. The goal: Get care to those who need mental health services instead of jail time, officials said.

[READ: Increasing collaboration between police and mental health professionals]

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who introduced the motion, pointed to the case of Eric Briceno, who’d been in the midst of a mental health episode when responding sheriff’s deputies reportedly pinned him down, struck him and tazed him. The encounter ended in his death.

Hahn said Briceno’s case was a “tragic failure in the county’s crisis response,” where a different kind of call-in system could have re-routed a call to unarmed mental health clinicians rather than armed deputies.

“We have trained teams of mental health experts, but they are no use if you can’t call them when you need them,” Hahn said. “For the first time ever, we are reimagining how we respond to crises and making sure we are helping people suffering from a mental health crisis rather than hurting.”

Her colleagues agreed as they all pointed to a vision of a better-trained system of responders.

Jonathan Sherin, the county’s director of mental health services, applauded a triage response system that meets crisis calls with an up-front assessment on whether they are law enforcement or mental health. It would not only help meet the needs of families in mammoth L.A. County, he said, it could ease pressure on law enforcement.

Deputies are equipped to fight crime, he said. But it’s time to “meet the health and human services needs in our communities with a health and human services response.”

As it stands, the county has mental health and psychiatric evaluation teams that often tag-team with law enforcement.

No one on Tuesday was criticizing them for the work they do — often unheralded and tackled with thin resources.

But supervisors say there are too many gaps in the response network. And, given the county’s large push for alternatives to incarceration, it was time to go a step beyond such teams.

Tuesday’s step forward came after the Board in March approved a motion called “Crisis Response Coordination,” which authorized the Department of Mental Health to create the Alternative Crisis Response Steering Committee. The group is composed of health, fire, law enforcement, legal, and social services agencies to advise DMH on the development of a new crisis response system.

Early on, though, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, said he was not thrilled with the idea — despite law enforcement critiques that they are called upon often to be “social workers.”

At a June board meeting, he was quick to note concerns about an alternative call system, adding that residents should know not to flood 911 calls with anything but emergencies.

He also noted that the “overwhelming majority” of responses from law enforcement are “the right response.”

Officers and deputies often play a kind of neutral role in a dispute. In child-welfare situations, for example, deputies are often a trusted party in a crisis situation, he said.

Sherin acknowledged such a system will take a massive investment.

No cost was tagged to the effort as of yet. But on Tuesday, officials were already suggesting funding in part could come from beefed up county investments in alternatives-to-incarceration which got a huge influx of $72 million in the county’s supplemental budget approved Tuesday.

NEXT: New approach to mental health crises in Calif. county

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