Community & Justice Community Health Community Health & Safety Police

Non-Law Enforcement Crisis Response on the Way for Residents in LA, SF, Sacramento, and Other CA Cities and Counties

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

At the end of September, California Governor Gavin Newsom shut down AB 2054, a bill that would have created a three-year pilot program focused on replacing armed law enforcement with health and community workers for certain 911 calls. The Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems (CRISES) Act’s authors and supporters believe that many calls involving homelessness, mental health, and certain other emergency situations would be better served by community-based response teams centered on culturally appropriate, trauma-informed, and relationship-building services.

Despite the bill’s demise, a handful of local jurisdictions, including Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are taking steps of their own toward reinventing the role of law enforcement, amid a growing consensus that sending police to respond to people in crises too often leads to unnecessary escalation and physical, sometimes fatal, force.

On October 27, the Sacramento City Council unanimously approved a new plan to establish an explicit definition of “public safety” that goes beyond services provided by police, fire, and emergency medical workers, so that more money can be allocated for community-based programs focused on building up youth and the other “upstream” violence prevention efforts, as well as alternative emergency response systems.

The city has also, in response to an uptick in violent crime, put federal coronavirus stimulus money toward efforts to reduce gun violence and to boost mental health care for local youth and families.

Sacramento Councilmember Jay Schenirer introduced last Tuesday’s resolution, which he said was a collaborative effort between his office and community groups more than 14 months in the making.

“This is our desire: for this council to make a very strong statement, to reiterate our commitment to young people,” said Schenirer. “They don’t have a union, and they don’t have labor contracts. So, how do we ensure that we’re continuously thinking about them and the sustainability of our community?”

“Understand that if we don’t start changing the system that is causing a great deal of harm to our most vulnerable communities, and specifically, our most vulnerable youth,” the councilmember said, “I don’t think we ever get out of this hamster wheel, where we’re just putting more and more funds into intervention activities, rather than getting in front of it.”

Last Tuesday’s vote to create this the “landmark document,” as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg put it, followed several months after the city councilmembers approved other major reforms in July. These changes include the establishment of an inspector general’s office to oversee the police department, and the creation of a new Office of Community Response over the next two years. The office will responsible for operating a non-law-enforcement emergency response system. At the time, community groups argued that the council didn’t go far enough to divert resources from the police.

On the same day that Sacramento voted on a new definition of “public safety,” the city and county of Los Angeles announced a collaborative effort to build their own unarmed emergency response system. The so-called Therapeutic Transportation Pilot Program will bring LA County Department of Mental Health (DMH) workers into the emergency response system, and will be able to handle calls that come in through 911 as well as calls that go directly to the LAPD or to the fire department.

“Too often when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, this individual is met by an armed public safety response, which can escalate the situation by increasing the individual’s stress and anxiety,” said DMH Director Dr. Jonathan Sherin. “This approach can be counterproductive to helping stabilize the individual experiencing the emergency.”

Both the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Department have had mental crisis teams that partnered police with mental health clinicians for years. However, families of people experiencing severe mental illness say the presence of armed police and loud sirens can escalate a delicate mental health crisis from the outset.

In light of continued calls to defund law enforcement and to remove police from emergency calls, in response to high-profile fatal police encounters, the clinicians participating in this latest pilot program will be embedded in city fire stations.

The teams will be equipped with therapeutic transport vans and equipment to connect with psychiatrists who can speak with people in crisis remotely.

San Francisco’s plans lie along the same path.

Next month, SF officials will launch its own alternative emergency response system that utilizes health workers within the fire department to handle mental health emergencies. The teams will consist of a mental health clinician or social worker, a paramedic, and a trained community member with lived addiction and recovery experience. The pilot program is expected to take on approximately 20,000 of 300,000 calls for police. (BART, too, is building out a crisis response system.)

San Diego, too, has police-clinician mental health teams, but is launching a police-free pilot program consisting of clinician-peer units that can be mobilized via the 911 system or a community helpline.

Other jurisdictions, including Nevada County, are just beginning to pair mental health clinicians with law enforcement, a system that many of the state’s larger police agencies have been using for several years now. Among those cities and counties is Santa Barbara County, which recently expanded its law enforcement-clinician program, launched in 2019, from three teams to four.

As local officials began to take large and small steps toward changing public safety and emergency response, the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington DC think tank, partnered with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) to look at 911 calls from 8 cities — Detroit, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New Orleans, Louisiana; Portland, Oregon; Richmond, California; Seattle, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona.

Their newly released report estimates that between 18 and 34 percent of 911 calls appeared to be for life-threatening emergencies, and that a large portion of emergency calls (23 to 39 percent) could be diverted away from armed law enforcement response.

CAP and LEAP recommend that cities and counties with police forces adopt alternative 911 systems that send out civilian first responders, not only to mental health calls, but to other the low-danger, including “disturbances, suspicious persons, trespassing incidents, noise complaints, other quality-of-life concerns, and lower-risk neighborhood conflicts.”

“These sorts of situations would benefit,” the report says, “from the mediation skills and neighborhood experience that credible messengers — a type of outreach worker with a personal history of justice system involvement — already employ in violence prevention initiatives across the country.”

While community response systems are “not a silver bullet,” the researchers said, “among communities where relationships with police have been damaged by generations of disproportionate enforcement, the model could play an important role in increasing safety, well-being, and trust.”


Photo source: Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health – LA City and County officials announce new crisis response pilot.

15 Comments

    • I can’t wait!!!!! That 100% right I know some of these people they will wait miles away for the police , the police will still be handling these calls what a joke

  • Don’t worry, they will be slow rolling it all around the county. I think LA County will have 10 of these vans…probably will be even slower than the response teams at DCFS. GOA every call they get.

  • For a couple decades there was on and off consideration of using paramedics to handle calls for patients having a mental health episodes instead of Law Enforcement. It never went anywhere because Fire Departments really did not want the work. It’s messy of course. For Decades State Law gave Doctors and Law Enforcement the authority for commit a person for a 72 hour hold. Police were the first responder of last resort for the mentally ill…. no one else really wanted the responsibility. So it fell the Law Enforcement as usual.

  • It sounds all fine and dandy in “theory” but in practice? As someone who has seen the “feel good appease the public” agencies created out of reactionary impulse by weak political leaders with fancy names and all like “HOPICS, PET, PMRT, HOMELESSNESS CZAR, BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION, EXODUS RECOVERY” only to see either these agencies either create such a narrow criteria under which they offer services they ultimately pass the buck and pass off their problem to “Mikey” (aka law enforcement) or just flat out figure out a way to do nothing. I can see these “Response Teams” saying things like “ohm he threatened us” or “he has a criminal record” or the classic “he/she does not meet our criteria”. In these cases not only will time have been wasted but whose left to deal with the problem, with no one to pass the buck too? The clean-up crew, the police! I only hope the BOS, Max Huntsman, BLM, COC, ANTIFA, WLA, local media and other oversight groups do some homework and devote the same amount of time, energy, scrutiny and effective due diligence to monitor and review these agencies performance. Of course it won’t happen though, because public perception and false narrative being put forth is that police are uneducated brutes who can’t think, while the service oriented “degreed professionals” would never lie or be guilty of not doing their jobs. Yeah Right!

    How many individuals experiencing a “mental crisis” have I seen be transported to a mental health treatment facility on a 5150 WIC hold by law enforcement only to be “drugged up” and kicked out the door in 23 hours 59 minutes….no better than when they were admitted, no real treatment and no where to go? Is the law being broken by these “mental health professionals” damn right? What about the oath of these “degreed professionals”? But of course there is no accountability. This scenario plays out time after time after time, daily?

    • Yup!!!! I’ve seen it forst hand. These so called mental health professionals don’t want this. Its sad to see them working. The work space is unsafe, homeless use it an excuse to get a bed by saying the magic word. The infratructure is not there to support this system.

  • Actually, I believe they have value and will free up cops to do cop things. Many of their responses will result in the police being summoned anyway, but many will not.

    There will come a point where it will all settle down to a workable middle-ground after these folks realize the realities of real life, whether pious-minded politicians (and writers with dogs on their laps) like or not.

    • I agree!! My concern is how much funding will they divert from law enforcement before they realize they need to realined. I have been in places where social workers are training. I can say a couple of things regarding that. There are alot of cute social workers but that being said, none looked like they were battle ready. I dont believe they are being trained to expect the unexpected. They really need to rework the social worker program to better prepare them for the crazyness they will face out there otherwise, resources will be taken from cops but then cops will still be called.

  • When the first catastrophic incident occurs and regrettably one of these folks are injured, you are going to see backpedaling like never seen before. Studies will be ordered, Blue Ribbon committees empaneled, recommendations made, lawsuits filed and policies developed for the Sheriff to take an active role in reforming this screwball concept.

  • As a person who was a cop for over 35 years and also has a close family member who has mental issues severe enough to have had Deputies out to the house on a number of occasions with the family member inevitably being detained 5150, I am hopeful that this is a first step in improving our mental health care for persons in need.

    Presently, the Deputies haul the individuals to a facility for evaluation where there is a determination made if the individual will be admitted for a 72 hour observation period. In the end though, the person is released, one way or another. From my experience, the “treatment” they receive is nothing but a triage for their condition and life situation. There is virtually no follow-up and the individual (and their family) is on their own – until the individual again acts out and the cycle repeats itself.

    As I said I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the folks on these teams will realize what a vicious cycle this “system” is, once they return time and time again to the same locations, dealing with the same persons who are in crisis. I am hopeful that THEY will become advocates for some sort of long-term care/oversight for these people who really can’t help themselves. Maybe THEY will see that there needs to be a systematized follow-up process that takes place to try to head-off psychotic episodes through mandated (court ordered, if necessary) therapy and psychotropic drugs.

    I say “THEY” because, to this point, no one has wanted to listen to the families of those who are closest to the scene. Maybe these “mental health experts” will get an understanding what is needed beyond hauling these people to the loony bin. Maybe they will come to realize that without such a “system” built to help the individual and their families cope with mental illness, the individual is doomed because they will just continue to relapse over and over until the family gives up and they end up on the street (if they aren’t already there), where they are doomed to a life of homelessness and worse.

    I know “society” has deemed that these individuals has the right to choose their own path in life, but “society” has not seen what mental illness has done to otherwise good people who need help. Simply put, “society” has not walked in the shoes of those who has seen the realities of mental illness.

  • Well at least California EDD, the generous social programs and homeless outreach services will be available to all the “pink slipped” former deputies. In the vein of that famous harbinger of hate and professor of doom toward law enforcement CF, these now unemployed civil servants can now live off the taxpayers in a different way. When in Rome, do as the Romans.

  • I am just as come compassionate as the next person but why should society have to be responsible for someone else’s problems? People born with mental illness or who have been through a traumatic event should either be the responsibility of the family members or in those cases where this is not possible the state should intervene. If this means a lifetime committal funded by taxpayers so be it. However, if someone suffers a mental breakdown due to their own actions (drug use) why should society be responsible to provide them treatment or aid? If they chose to become an addict of their own free will why should society be responsible to intervene and help them? Their condition was a result of them exercising their freedom of choice. Should the government impose it’s will and provide them treatment? Oregon will be interesting, as the heroin and cocaine addicts flood into their state and impose themselves into Oregonians daily lives. It will be a dug addicts (and dealers) dystopia.

Leave a Comment