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Los Angeles Initiates Program to Dispatch Unarmed Civilians, Not Police, to Handle Crisis Situations

LAPD officers (Credits: BBC)

A fresh initiative has taken root in Los Angeles, aiming to reduce the reliance on police officers in managing nonviolent mental health emergencies. This innovative pilot program dispatches unarmed civilians equipped with specialized training to address such calls, marking a departure from conventional law enforcement responses.

Dubbed the Unarmed Model of Crisis Response, the program mirrors a successful approach pioneered in Oregon. Under this initiative, two teams of mental health practitioners are on standby 24/7 to handle situations typically handled by police, including welfare checks and incidents involving public intoxication and indecent exposure.

LAPD officers could stop responding to some nonviolent calls (Credits: Los Angeles Times)

Administered by the city administrator’s office, the program is currently active in three police divisions — Devonshire, Wilshire, and Southeast — with plans for evaluation and potential expansion after a year of operation.

The program was introduced at a recent press conference following a month of operational experience. City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield emphasized the necessity of diversifying response tools to serve Angelenos in various situations better, ranging from mental health crises to minor health issues in encampments.

This approach draws inspiration from the renowned “Cahoots” model in Eugene, Ore., which has been lauded as a benchmark in mobile crisis intervention since its inception in 1989. Cahoots handles a substantial portion of mental health-related calls in Eugene, dispatching specialist teams trained in counseling and de-escalation.

The introduction of this program in Los Angeles comes against a backdrop of mounting public dissatisfaction with the city’s handling of issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health.

The LAPD has faced increased scrutiny following several incidents involving the use of force in mental health-related situations. In 2023 alone, LAPD officers were involved in at least 19 shootings of individuals experiencing behavioral crises, according to data compiled by The Times.

Interim Chief Dominic Choi Completely Endorses the New Program

Despite the LAPD’s efforts to enhance crisis intervention training and introduce non-lethal weapons, officers often find themselves ill-equipped to address mental health calls effectively. Interim Chief Dominic Choi expressed full support for the new program, acknowledging its potential to shift resources appropriately and alleviate some of the burden on law enforcement.

Los Angeles falls short of LAPD hiring goal (Credits: Police1)

This initiative reflects a broader trend seen across the United States since 2020, with municipalities reallocating resources from law enforcement to alternative emergency response strategies.

Los Angeles joined other major cities in committing to develop and invest in specialized responses for homeless individuals and those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.

However, challenges remain in scaling up such programs. Earlier endeavors, such as a Los Angeles Fire Department pilot program, faced setbacks and, in the end, failed to achieve their objectives. Similar efforts in New York encountered obstacles related to staffing and training, falling short of their intended targets.

Activists highlight persistent underfunding and lingering ties to law enforcement as key issues hindering the effectiveness of alternative crisis intervention programs.

Eddie Anderson, a local pastor and former City Council candidate, voiced concerns about the sustainability and accountability of such initiatives despite ongoing budgetary constraints.

As Los Angeles addresses mental health crises, the success of this pilot program could signal a major shift in emergency response strategies, emphasizing the importance of specialized care and community support in safeguarding public well-being.

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