Crime & Justice

Civilian panel says LA Sheriff needs more mental health teams

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Amanda Myers/AP

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell needs to dramatically increase the number of special teams that deal with people with mental illness, according to a report issued Thursday by the department's civilian oversight panel.

The report, the first independent look at the sheriff’s much vaunted Mental Evaluation Teams, said the department needs to move faster to train patrol deputies in distinguishing between someone who is dangerous and someone who is harmless but acting out because of a mental disorder.

Each team is supposed to have a sheriff’s deputy and a county mental health clinician. But three of the sheriff’s ten teams have two deputies and no clinician, according to the report.

"This is inconsistent with the concept of a multi-disciplinary/co-response deployment team," the report states. The county’s Department of Mental Health is having trouble recruiting candidates – possibly because the work hours could vary considerably and a perception that working with a deputy could be dangerous.

The sheriff’s department has proposed expanding the number of Mental Evaluation Teams 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 Lt. John Gannon, who commands the units.

"The MET teams are the way of the future," Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said, as the number of calls involving mentally ill people rises.

But McDonnell also has said budget constraints prevent him from immediately expanding the program, and the Board of Supervisors has yet to allocate more money for the expansion.

"I don’t think they are making it a priority," said Ester Lim of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "If they made it a priority, they would find the funding."

The department needs up to 80 of these teams to be able to respond in a timely fashion to situations involving people who are mentally ill across sprawling Los Angeles County, the report states. The LAPD has 32 such units.

In fact, the report offers high praise for the LAPD’s program. It lists five components that make it a model for the nation, including community engagement with mental health care providers and a case management system involving a detective and a clinician who follow up on repeat contacts with high-risk individuals.

The sheriff’s response times often topped half an hour, according to Gannon. "The availability is spotty at times," Gannon told KPCC earlier this year. In the Antelope Valley, the average response time is 26 minutes, he said. For the rest of L.A. County, it's 38 minutes.

But even with more teams, the sheriff mental health units, like those at the LAPD, likely will never be first on the scene of a call involving a mentally ill person.

"They’re not first responders," said Commissioner Patti Giggans, who chaired the ad hoc committee that produced the report. A final version with recommendations is expected in October.

That’s why training patrol deputies on how to identify and deal with mentally ill people is so important, she said. But the sheriff’s department estimates it will be up to four years before all of its frontline deputies go through what’s known as Critical Incident Team training.

"That is a concerning large amount of time," Giggans said. The report notes the department has only four instructors for the critical incident team training.

Compounding the problem, according to the report, is the lack of treatment facilities for mentally ill people. Giggans said she’s talked to deputies who want to take someone to a facility but none is available. So they end up arresting them because they may be a danger to themselves.

Activists have decried the practice, saying it only exacerbates any mental illness.

The need is urgent. 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.