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.