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LA County to expand Sheriff's mental evaluation teams

Sheriff's Deputy Rodriguez, an officer from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, guards an intersection outside the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2013. Christopher Okula/KPCC

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to more than double the number of mental evaluation teams at the sheriff's department.

The so-called MET teams include a specially trained deputy and clinician from the Department of Mental Health. They respond to deputies who need help dealing with a mentally ill person.

“Proactive and compassionate engagement that includes a mental health expert will reduce confrontations,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who co-sponsored the motion.  “Expanding this vital program will also help law enforcement in its effort to avoid use of deadly force."

“The MET teams are the way of the future," said Sheriff Jim McDonnell. He said the number of calls involving mentally ill people is rising.

“A lot of that I would attribute to the increased use of synthetic drugs, whether it's spice, methamphetamine, most recently fentanyl and some of the opioids," McDonnell said. "It’s a very serious situation that we’re facing.” 

A study by the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center found mentally ill people are 16 times more likely than others to be fatally shot by police.

MET teams are designed to reduce that possibility, and to get mentally ill people into treatment instead jail. The teams refer to people as patients, not suspects.

In the last fiscal year, MET units rolled out to 1,154 calls in L.A. County.

But response times often topped half an hour, according to Lt. John Gannon.

“The availability is spotty at times,” Gannon told KPCC. In the Antelope Valley, the average response time is 26 minutes, he said. For the rest of L.A. County, it's 38 minutes.

The sheriff’s department has proposed expanding the number of MET units from 10 to 23, and creating a triage team that would operate around the clock at a cost of about $5 million dollars, according to Gannon, who commands MET units.

“That’s bare bones,” he said.

By comparison, the LAPD has 32 mental health response units, known as “System-wide Mental Assessment Response Teams” or SMART.  In all, the Department of Mental Health has partnered with 35 law enforcement agencies throughout the county to establish 82 similar teams. 

Supervisors Barger and Mark Ridley-Thomas sponsored the motion to expand the sheriff's MET units.

“The expansion of MET teams has previously been constrained by limited resources,” Barger and Ridley-Thomas wrote in their motion before the board. “The time is right for the county to invest in better intervention and prevention of use of force incidents involving people with mental illness.”

It's estimated 10 percent of law enforcement calls involve someone who is mentally ill.  Those encounters are more likely to be violent, according to a 2015 report by the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center. It found mentally ill people are 16 times more likely than others to be fatally shot by police.

That’s what happened in Pico Rivera on Christmas Eve. Sheriff’s deputies were called to the home of Zhonghua Li after family members reported the mentally ill man was stabbing people. When he refused to drop a pair of sewing scissors and advanced on deputies outside, they fatally shot Li, 48.

No MET team was requested by the deputies - the incident unfolded too quickly, according to sheriff's officials.

It’s unclear whether a MET unit could have prevented the shooting of Li. But the quicker the response, the better, said Gannon.

“The faster we get a mental evaluation team there, the more likely they are to help the situation resolve with a positive ending,” he said.

Last month, the sheriff’s department also began providing crisis intervention training classes to its patrol deputies. Each of the department's estimated 5,300 deputies will go through the 32-hour class over the next several years, Gannon said.

Supervisors hope to save money by adding MET units and new training.

Over the past three years, the board has approved settlements totaling nearly $7 million involving lawsuits by the families of mentally ill people who were fatally shot by sheriff's deputies, according to Barger and Ridley-Thomas' motion.

The motion calls on sheriff's and mental health officials to recommend a funding plan to increase MET units and, not insignificantly, figure out possible funding for any increase in demand for mental health services and housing.