Suicide hotline replacing LAPD officers on some calls could expand to 24 hours

So far, the pilot program has handled 424 calls that otherwise would likely have drawn police, said LAPD officials

By Josh Cain
Daily News, Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — A hotline providing an alternative to Los Angeles Police Department officers responding to suicide attempts and other mental health emergencies could soon expand to 24 hours a day.

The Los Angeles Police Commission voted Tuesday to recommend increasing the city's contract with Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, which is still under a one-year pilot program that started in February. The contract now goes to Mayor Eric Garcetti to approve.

Since the program began, the Culver City-based suicide prevention nonprofit has taken 911 calls directly from Los Angeles police dispatchers for eight hours a day, seven days a week. The larger contract — which would more than double from around $378,000 to more than $838,000 — would be amended so Didi Hirsch would accept calls around the clock.

So far, the nonprofit has handled 424 calls that otherwise would most likely have drawn armed police officers, said LAPD Captain Brian Bixler, who runs the department's Mental Evaluation Unit.

Bixler said none of those calls were referred back to 911 dispatchers.

"To me, that's a success," he said.

The original contract meant the nonprofit would take any emergency calls from LAPD to provide "immediate mental health services and emotional support for all callers in crisis."

Didi Hirsch was also contracted to connect callers with clinical supervision, to connect with them in follow-up calls, and to direct them to care programs.

The eight-hour shift that Didi Hirsch providers worked was meant to cover the parts of the day when 911 dispatchers typically receive most suicide calls, from noon to 8 p.m. Bixler later said he still expected the numbers to increase significantly if the service is expanded to 24-hours a day.

Bixler said the initial numbers were lower than what he expected. But he said the program found some LAPD dispatchers who did not refer calls to Didi Hirsch when they could have. They were unfamiliar with how the program worked and didn't quite trust it yet, he said.

"They're uncomfortable sending a call to somebody they don't know," Bixler said. "When they are calling for a police car, they know who (the call) is going to. They know what they're going to get."

Bixler said more training for both the dispatchers and Didi Hirsch workers could help. He said LAPD would provide more opportunities for both sides to learn from each other about how they operate to build up familiarity.

There were times during the early pilot program when the nonprofit was busy with calls, however. In February, just when the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to emerge in the United States, Didi Hirsch received more than five calls a day. That average went up and down over the next few months. But LAPD data has indicated that the department gets around five to six calls a day that could be diverted to Didi Hirsch, Bixler said.

A similar number of calls that are more serious and would require someone responding in person could be handled by LAPD's SMART units, which pair officers with mental health workers in the field. But there are only 17 of those teams currently.

Developing ways to take mental health calls out of the hands of police and send them to providers who are better suited to help has been going on for years, Bixler said. But a recent push — following the nationwide upheaval against aspects of policing in the U.S. in 2020 — may have helped make LAPD's program a reality.

A frequent target of criticism from L.A.'s coalition of antipolice groups since the George Floyd protests of Spring 2020, LAPD Chief Michel Moore has frequently said he agrees with the call for reducing the reliance on police officers responding to certain situations where they are ill-equipped to respond. That includes calls of people contemplating suicide, and those experiencing mental health crises.

He said Tuesday he wants to see more calls diverted from LAPD, to services like Didi Hirsch and the city's 211 and 311 programs, especially as his force of sworn officers shrinks due to budget cuts.

(c)2021 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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