On Thursday, the civilian commission overseeing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is slated to present its final report assessing the sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Teams (MET) program. The report recommends the LASD increase the number of MET teams from 23 to 60.
MET teams—comprised of a specially trained sheriff’s deputy and a Department of Mental Health clinician—respond to mental health crisis calls, and work to diffuse potentially violent situations, and avoid arrests and hospitalizations when possible.
In January, the supes approved a proposal from the sheriff’s department and the Department of Mental Health to expand the number of Mental Evaluation Teams (MET teams) from 10 to 23. The department currently has 17 teams total, according to the report. Only eight to nine of those teams are on duty each day.
In comparison, the LAPD has a total of 32 teams, at least 17 of which are on duty each day. These teams cover the whole city 24/7, according to the report which called the agency’s System-wide Mental Assessment Response Teams (SMART) “a model for co-response team deployments by law enforcement agencies throughout the nation.” The sheriff’s department’s MET program was the first co-response team program in the U.S., according to the report, yet “has fallen well behind” the LAPD, which launched its SMART program in 1993.
According to sheriff’s department data, 82% of total use of force incidents in 2016—excluding shootings—involved people who either had a history of mental health issues, or were under the influence, or both.
The Civilian Oversight Commission’s report, commissioned by the LA County Board of Supervisors, points to the fatal shooting of Dennis “Todd” Rodgers, a man with bipolar disorder who was brandishing electric hair clippers in a parking lot and “acting erratically” when deputies shot him. The deputies had asked for an MET team to respond and de-escalate the situation, but there were only two teams on duty in the whole county, and both were responding to other calls.
“Our study revealed that by the time the MET arrives at the scene, the tense encounter has usually already ended and the only remaining issue is whether a mentally ill person in need of treatment should be taken to a hospital instead of being arrested and jailed,” the report states. “While diverting people from jail to treatment is laudable, with proper staffing MET can and should do so much more to assist patrol deputies in dealing with mentally ill people who fail to heed their commands. MET is most effective when the co-response teams arrive in time to actually affect the outcome of the situation.”
By increasing the number of MET teams to 60, the department could cover far more of LA County. With current staffing numbers, the sheriff’s department is only able to cover hours and areas that it deems likely to be busiest and most in need. This means that the northern areas of LA County get far more coverage while the southern parts of the county go without. Yet, the report says, “mental health crises don’t occur only on certain days or during certain hours, and they certainly aren’t limited to a particular neighborhood or zip code.”
The commission suggests positioning MET hubs at stations across LA in order to maintain continuous coverage county-wide.
The commission also recommends a prioritization of “department-wide de-escalation training with a mental health focus” so that all deputies have completed training before the department’s current six-year timeline for completion. The report suggests the department hire more trainers to facilitate the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course, which is underfunded. “Every dollar” that the county spends on training will help to reduce the costs of settlements and judgments from use-of-force lawsuits, the commission says. “Conduct that a patrol deputy views as irrational or defiant may be a manifestation of mental illness or developmental disability,” according to the commission. And de-escalation training makes it easier for deputies to identify “red flags” indicating mental illness during interactions with the community.
The commission’s report also praises the department’s Multiple Interactive Learning Objectives (MILO) training simulator, which the commission recommends the department position at every station so that deputies all have a chance to practice de-escalation.
“The MILO simulator either escalates or de-escalates the interaction depending on the trainee-deputy’s performance. If the trainee-deputy empathizes and positively interacts with the person in crisis, the encounter de-escalates, resulting in a non-violent resolution. If the trainee-deputy acts aggressively and fails to establish a rapport with the person in crisis, the encounter rapidly escalates and ends in a use of force. After the simulation ends, the trainers—sergeants with significant mental health training—score the trainee-deputies’ interactions and debrief each trainee-deputy about LASD use-of-force policy compliance and performance issues.”
The commission’s final report also recommends the mental health and sheriff’s departments increase cross-training between DMH clinicians and deputies to ensure that team members share the same knowledge and will “be on the same page” when responding to mental health crises.
More urgently, the two departments must address the fact that among the 17 MET teams, there are deputy-only teams, which, according to the report, defeats the purpose of having co-response teams. The problem appears to be that the DMH has had a hard time recruiting clinicians. The commission recommends incentivizing participation in the program.
“DMH has made general reference to “union rules” as possibly prohibiting giving some incentives to clinicians to join MET, but incentivized schedules and payments have long been used in other unionized industries and professions,” the report says.
The commissioners believe the sheriff’s department should equally prioritize both de-escalation training and the MET program. “In the course of our study, some framed the solution in zero-sum terms, arguing that the LASD budget can only support either increasing the number of MET teams, or expanding training opportunities, but not both.” This reasoning, considering both efforts will work to reduce the county’s rising use-of-force settlement costs, is “penny wise and pound foolish,” according to the commission.
Photo by David Franco/Board of Supervisors