L.A. County supervisors vote to expand sheriff's mental health teams

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has long had specially trained teams to de-escalate confrontations with people who have severe mental illness, but after two decades, the agency has struggled to deploy mental health responders at all times of day or night because of funding and staffing shortages.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors moved to fix that problem on Tuesday, voting unanimously to expand the number of employees assigned to the department’s Mental Evaluation Teams so they can respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and to find ways to pay for the mission.

The Sheriff’s Department, which was the first law enforcement agency in the Los Angeles area to create such teams in 1993, plans to add 25 staff members and needs about $4.7 million in funding for the first year, according to a department memo to the Board of Supervisors. The increase would more than double the number of Mental Evaluation Teams from 10 to 23 and create a “triage help desk” for residents to call during a psychological crisis.

The teams pair deputies with mental health clinicians and respond to calls that require special handling of mentally ill people who are threatening others or being disruptive. The hope is that by routing those individuals to psychological services rather than jail, patients will get the treatment they need and improve instead of cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.

The expansion comes at a time when mental illness is increasingly seen as a medical issue that shouldn’t be solely the responsibility of law enforcement officers. Sheriff’s Department officials said last year that 911 calls involving people with mental illnesses have grown 55% since 2010.

“It’s not about putting someone away and throwing away the key, it’s about letting someone who’s having a mental health episode who committed a crime get help,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who co-sponsored the motion with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said after the initiative passed.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the Mental Evaluation Teams have diverted 99% of the 1,200 people they encountered away from the criminal justice system over the past year.

“This will cause a reduction in calls for service,” he said. “All in all, this is an opportunity for us to step up, to do what’s right and what’s compassionate. This is a great step forward. The demand outweighs the need.”

Law enforcement officers are often the first to arrive when a mentally ill person is acting disruptively, yet few have formal training in defusing such situations.

The mentally ill are especially at risk for violent encounters with law enforcement. In Los Angeles County in 2014, nearly 30% of the incidents where sheriff’s deputies used physical force while on patrol involved someone with a mental illness.

With so few of the mental health teams on duty at a given time, sheriff’s deputies in the more than 4,000 square miles patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department often didn’t bother to call, because it could take hours for a team to arrive.

The plan approved on Tuesday meets a recommendation made by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey in 2015 that called for the number of Sheriff’s Department Mental Evaluation Teams to grow to 23.

The matter was met with little opposition on Tuesday.

Mental health advocates, such as Brittney Weissman of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Los Angeles County Council, praised the move, saying it would make a significant difference for families who are dealing with a mental health crisis.

“The peace of mind, hope for recovery and confidence in the system skyrockets when they see a mental evaluation team arrive as compared to a law-enforcement-only team,” she said.

Tuesday’s motion also called on the county’s chief executive to look for various ways to pay for the initiative.

maya.lau@latimes.com

For more news on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, follow me on Twitter: @mayalau

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