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LA Sheriff's Department plans dramatic expansion of mental health policing

An L.A. County Sheriff's Department badge.
Wikimedia Commons
The badge of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department plans to dramatically beef up its mental health policing capabilities, according to a newly-released report that provides a county-wide roadmap for county law enforcement's handling of suspects experiencing a mental health crisis.

The report, issued by L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, details the sheriff's intention to build a Mental Evaluation Bureau that essentially replicates the Los Angeles Police Department's Mental Evaluation Unit -  a program that's become an international model of mental health policing. 

"The new Mental Evaluation Bureau would operate 24 hours, seven day a week,"  Lacey writes in the report issued Wednesday. 

More immediately, the report says, the sheriff's department is seeking to add more Mental Evaluation Teams. The department currently has five of these teams, which assist patrol officers on calls involving those with mental illness. These "co-deployed" teams consist of a specially-trained deputy and a clinician from the L.A. County Department of Public Health. Together, they use their training to help defuse potentially volatile situations and to make referrals to treatment facilities.   

"We have consistently asked for funding and additional staffing," says Lt. Carlos Marquez, head of the Mental Evaluation Teams program. Additional funding became available this summer, he says.

The sheriff's department added three more teams this month to serve mental health calls in Santa Clara, Palmdale and Lancaster, says Marquez.  To properly cover the entire county, he says, he needs 15 more teams. Marquez says his agency has requested funding for this expansion and is awaiting word from the county. 

Lacey's report also outlines the sheriff department's plan to provide all of its 5,355 patrol deputies 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training, which would be phased in over the next six years. 

That training, modeled on a program started in Tennessee and known internationally as the "Memphis Model," is designed to help officers defuse situations involving those experiencing some sort of mental health crisis.

Among the goals of this and other diversion programs outlined in Lacey's report is to reduce the high number of mentally ill inmates in county jails.  Lacey estimates that 20 percent of inmates in L.A.'s jails have a severe mental illness, and adds that many are incarcerated for low-level crimes that would otherwise qualify them for diversion.