The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis law enforcement in May led communities nationwide to reimagine who should respond to 911 calls when no violence is involved. This week, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to move forward with removing armed police from responding to nonviolent 911 calls in the City of LA. They passed the motion on what would have been George Floyd's 47th birthday.
City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson represents District 8, and he's one of those behind the motion. He tells KCRW that under this plan, LA will send trained, unarmed crisis professionals to handle some incidents involving mental health, substance abuse, and threats of suicide among others.
KCRW: Why is it important to change who responds to some of these kinds of crises?
Marqueece Harris-Dawson: “First of all, it's just a common sense approach to dealing with problems. If you have a mental problem, you send somebody with mental health expertise. If you have a substance abuse problem, you send somebody with substance abuse expertise.
I think over time, we've devolved our social safety net and our social services, so that police and fire are the only people left to do this job. They're the only ones available 24 hours a day. They're the only ones who can respond very, very quickly. And so what you see the City of LA doing is trying to build some of that back, so that we have responses.”
The City Council is creating a pilot program. How would it work? And what models are you looking at?
“There are models in Oregon and in other states that we're looking at, particularly a program called CAHOOTS [Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets]. We'll do it in a small area. One program has folks that will be stationed at fire stations, so that when a 911 call comes in and it calls for a mental health professional, a county mental health professional can ride out at any time of day or night. And the same thing would happen with other routing 911 calls.”
The City of LA is bigger than some of these areas in Oregon. Its residents are perhaps more diverse. There are many more languages here than most other U.S. cities. How do you confront that challenge? And the challenge that comes with LA's unhoused population, which leads to many 911 calls?
“That's just the brilliance of starting small and in a distinct area, which we will carve out. It'll be a small enough area to manage, and then we'll get real experience on the ground. This question will be answered by experts and by the people doing the work. They'll tell us what we need. The City of LA will figure out how much and how long it'll take to do this more broadly.”
This week LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva made a comment mocking the hiring of unarmed personnel, saying ‘Good luck with that, with an armed gang member who wants to shoot people in the park." What do you have to say to him and others who think that same way?
“I say to Mr. Villanueva: Learn how to read the paper. No one is suggesting an alternative response to an armed gang member. People are suggesting unarmed responses to people with mental health crises, people whose only crime is that they have a mental health condition and they are poor. So they're living on the street. Those are the kinds of responses that we're we're going to change who responds to — not where there's any specter of violence, particularly not deadly violence, like an armed gang member, as Mr. Villanueva says.”
What happens if a supposedly nonviolent call does become violent?
“If a call becomes violent, you do what any other government worker does. If a librarian is dealing with a person in the library and they become violent, he or she calls the police. They called armed reinforcements when they needed it. And the same thing would happen with these responders. It would be as if saying everywhere and every human interaction has to have an armed police officer because there is the possibility of violence.
The mass majority of interactions that LAPD has do not involve violence at all. And we think a big chunk of those can be responded with people who not only can resolve the current conflict that caused the call, but that can connect the person with help, so that you don't keep having the same event over and over again.”
What are you hearing from community members and leaders about this move?
“I'm hearing it's about time, it's overdue. So many people in my district, and this is true on my block, you have people in the neighborhood who have mental health problems, and sometimes you need someone to intervene. People are afraid to call the police because they couldn't live with themselves if that person ends up getting shot or going to jail, or anything serious happening to them because they are sick. And you want to have someone to call but there is no one to call. So this is long overdue.”