By Brett Gillin
While the debate rages on as to whether Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, is mentally ill or simply a hate-filled racist, one thing is not up for date. Police dealings with mentally ill persons are extremely complicated and make their jobs tougher on a daily basis. The Los Angeles Police Department recognizes this challenge and has implemented a system that is working with great success. This success is leading many other police departments to see the LAPD as a model for how to best deal with mentally ill citizens in their districts.
Dealing with citizens suspected of a crime is a tough enough job for police officers, but when the suspect is suspected of having a mental illness, it becomes much harder. The threat of, and potential for, violence increases exponentially when dealing with a mentally ill person. Knowing this, the Los Angeles Police Department created their Mental Evaluation Unit and the System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team, also known as SMART.
In partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, The LAPD pairs their officers with mental health clinicians in cases of suspected mental illness. According to this article in the Christian Science Monitor, it’s extremely easy to see the benefit this partnership is producing.
Take, for example, the case of “The Million Dollar Woman.” Los Angeles 911 dispatches regularly got calls from a woman who claimed to be having a hard time breathing. Dispatchers would send EMS to the scene, load her into an ambulance and take her to the hospital, only to find out that there were absolutely no medical issues with the woman. This happened over and over again until the LAPD stepped in.
Once the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit intervened, they were able to determine that the woman in question was not suffering from a mysterious respiratory illness, but rather from delusions and extreme loneliness. The police and mental health councilors connected her with mental health support services, and the woman’s 911 calls stopped, saving the city more than $1 million in a single year (the cost of her frequent and unfruitful ER visits.)
This single example helps illustrate the huge amounts of help that the Mental Evaluation Unit has brought to Greater Los Angeles. Countless nonviolent offenders have been able to avoid an unhelpful stint in jail, instead being diverted to mental health services, thanks to the LAPD’s evaluations. This saves taxpayers a huge amount of money, and goes a long way toward rehabilitating these offenders before their actions take violent turns toward themselves or other, according to Fred Osher, the director of health systems and services policy at The Council of State Governments.
“To be treated within a mental health climate and environment, as opposed to being in custody within a jail setting, has enormous implications for one’s recovery and the cost of one’s recovery,” Do. Osher explained.
The savings to taxpayers, and potentially police lives, goes even further than that. As the CS Monitor points out, many studies have proved that mentally ill inmates not only cost more to incarcerate and spend longer amounts of time in jail, but they’re also far more dangerous to themselves, their fellow prisoners, and the staff working the prisons.
Los Angeles pairs four or five teams of police officers and clinical teams, be they doctors, nurses, or social workers, at any given time. If these teams are unavailable, or an officer has dealings with a suspect they think may be mentally ill, LAPD also staffs a 24-hour Mental Evaluation Unit triage desk for consultation.
“I think it’s really beneficial for someone who’s not in the right frame of mind to have someone who can go in and say, ‘I’m not a police officer. Let me help you,” Officer Jason Romano told reporters. “That’s an invaluable tool.”