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LAPD looks to expand mental health units, citing slow response times

The dozen or so units respond to at least 26 calls a day, some of which take hours to resolve, officials said

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Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS

By Josh Cain
Daily News, Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — Faced with overwhelming demand and slow response times, the Los Angeles Police Department is again looking to expand its team of officers and clinicians tasked with calls involving people with mental illnesses.

The Mental Evaluation Unit responded to 9,725 calls in 2020, according to a report presented to the L.A. Police Commission on Tuesday, the largest number of calls in at least three years.

That number grew steadily even as the team slid back in the number of specialized units it could deploy over the course of a day — just 13, versus the 17 LAPD is budgeted for. The unit was spared from recent budget cuts, but Capt. Chris Waters, an MEU commander, said the team shrank due to attrition.

That means that the dozen or so units across the entire city over 24 hours are responding to, at least, 26 calls a day, some that take hours to resolve.

And LAPD believes there are actually more calls they could be responding to: Officers who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting estimated there could be between 12,000 to 13,000 calls total that are still getting only a traditional police response.

“The demand means that these resources are not always available to the officers in the field,” Waters said.

Commissioner William Briggs, who would later during that same meeting be appointed the commission’s president, said he witnessed the problem first-hand in a recent ride along with patrolling officers: The officers were responding to a call about someone going through a mental-health crisis, but the they had not radioed for a mental-health unit.

“I was candidly told that it would take hours for MEU to get there,” Briggs said, relating what the officers told him.

He said that the police call he was present for ended without violence — the officers there “were able to de-escalate the situation and resolve it.” But he also said that one call drew a large police response, tying up a large number of units.

On a separate ride-along, the same thing happened: A call from a woman who believed she was being kidnapped, but who it turned out was also suffering a mental health crisis, got regular patrol officers instead of a clinician.

“Just from those two incidents, it doesn’t seem like we have sufficient numbers of mental evaluation units to address what appears to be an escalating situation in our city where a number of calls involve people in a mental health crisis,” Briggs said.

Commanders of the program on Tuesday requested expanding the team to enough officers and mental health clinicians to staff at least 21 teams per day.

As it stands, MEU has 59 officers and 27 clinicians from L.A. County’s Department of Mental Health. They want at least 82 officers and 40 clinicians.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore said getting enough officers would mean taking some away from their regular patrol duties. But he said the benefits are magnified when the response involves officers who know how to handle subjects with mental illnesses, and clinicians who can actually get people the help they need.

“It’s smart policing because its lessening the enforcement side — by putting a clinician there, you’re going to have better outcomes,”

Expanding the team with more officers would require additional funding to be approved by the City Council. They would also have to request more mental health clinicians from the county. The commissioners on Tuesday voted to forward the report to the city’s Public Safety Committee for review.

READ: Police, hospitals and mentally ill subjects: A better way forward

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