Police need more training to deal with mentally ill, L.A. County told

A consultant tells L.A. County that police need more training to deal with mentally ill people

A consultant hired to find a way to divert the mentally ill from Los Angeles County's jail system found that not enough law enforcement officers were trained to handle people undergoing a mental health crisis.

In a report made public Wednesday, the consultant found that more resources were needed to train police officers, dispatchers and other criminal justice workers on how to deal with people with mental illness, and that law enforcement agencies should expand the use of special teams that respond to people in crisis.

The county, the report by GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation concluded, puts "insufficient resources" into its mobile response teams, the report found.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Mental health report: An article in the Oct. 30 California section about a consultants' report on diverting mentally ill people from Los Angeles County's criminal justice system said that the report was completed by the GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation. The report was completed by Policy Research Associates Inc., which operates the GAINS Center. —
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The center was hired by Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who is heading a task force focused on the mental health issue. The task force intends to develop a detailed proposal for county supervisors to consider early next year.

The report also found that there weren't enough safe places for officers to take people with serious mental health issues.

"It's often more time-efficient for law enforcement to book an individual into jail on a minor charge ... rather than spend many hours waiting in a psychiatric emergency department for the individual to be seen," the report said.

The report also recommended expanding an existing county program that places social workers in the courts to identify defendants who might be candidates for diversion, putting a pre-trial release program in place for such defendants, and placing more social workers in the jails.

The county has been under pressure to change the way it handles mentally ill defendants as a result of a federal investigation into conditions in the county jails and failure to prevent inmate suicides.

It appears increasingly likely that the county will find itself changing the system under a consent decree overseen by a federal judge.

Lacey said in a telephone interview that the GAINS Center report provides an "outline" of the gaps in the system, but a large amount of work remains to be done.

"It's going to take a while to implement a lot of the recommendations of the report, because they involve so many different agencies," she said. "My takeaway is, it's doable — it's just going to take a whole lot of work."

Some smaller law enforcement agencies have voiced concerns about officers being taken off the job for lengthy training sessions. District attorney officials said those concerns were being worked out in meetings with several local law enforcement agencies, but a clear countywide training plan had not been reached.

After expanded crisis intervention training, Lacey said, the top priority is sharing information and data among agencies. For instance, she said, the county needs to find a way for mental health professionals to share information with law enforcement, without violating patients' privacy rights.

The percentage of inmates in county jails who are mentally ill has increased by 89% since 2011 and now stands at 17% of the male population and 24% of the female population, Lacey said earlier this year.

Los Angeles County supervisors agreed last month to set aside $20 million to expand diversion programs for mentally ill offenders, but have yet to devise a specific plan.

The county is expected to move forward soon with setting up crisis centers where police can bring suspects with clear psychiatric issues instead of to jail or overcrowded emergency rooms. And a pilot program recently launched at the Van Nuys courthouse will divert mentally ill people charged with low-level crimes, offering them transitional housing, medical treatment and job-hunting help.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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