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Study: More law enforcement agencies turning to ‘non-police responders’ in mental-health crises

A new report found that a growing number of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies — including those in San Diego — are turning to non-police responders to handle behavioral health emergencies, and limiting when officers can make traffic and pedestrian stops.

The changes come amid continued scrutiny over situations involving mental health crises that end in police violence as well as persistent racial disparities in police stops — the circumstances that occur when one racial group is pulled over at rates higher than their share of the population.

The report was published last week by the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based think tank that focuses on criminal justice, voting rights and other public policy matters.

The analysis found that nearly 40 percent of the country’s 50 largest law enforcement agencies adopted programs between January 2020 and July 2022 that require sending behavioral health specialists or trained community members to some emergencies.

Another 30 percent of agencies created programs that either paired specialists — like paramedics or therapists — with police or sent them to incidents in lieu of officers.

One in five large departments also limited when officers could make traffic and pedestrian stops.

According to the report, cities and states have long relied on law enforcement agencies to resolve a host of societal ills — some of which officers and deputies are not well-trained to handle, like mental health emergencies.

But police are often the only source of immediate service to those in urgent need, a reality that funnels many people with behavioral health issues into jails, the report read.

In San Diego County, about a third of approximately 4,000 people jailed in September were on psychotropic medications for mental health disorders, jail records show.

“Both co-responder and alternative first responder programs, particularly (Mobile Crisis Teams), have a proven record of reducing unnecessary arrests and emergency hospitalizations while connecting people to appropriate community-based services and treatment,” the study read.

San Diego County’s Mobile Crisis Response Teams were among the programs mentioned in the report.

Launched in January 2021, the teams consist of mental health clinicians, case managers and peer support specialists. County officials say these professionals are uniquely positioned to offer a person-centered approach to nonviolent behavioral health situations that are often more effectively addressed by trained clinicians than officers.

By May, the teams had responded to nearly 1,300 calls.

Similar programs were recently established in 18 other cities, the report found, including the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement teams in Chicago and the Holistic Assistance Response Teams in Houston.

As in San Diego, many of the programs focus on homelessness or behavioral health — circumstances that don’t necessarily pose a risk to public safety but that could benefit from an expert response, the report found.

Although many of the programs are still in their infancy, several, including the county’s MCRT, have already been expanded.

“By investing in alternatives to police, (jurisdictions) not only ensure that routine, nonviolent matters get appropriate responses, but also free up police to devote themselves to serious crime,” the report read.

Other changes addressed in the report have been discussed in San Diego, but haven’t been implemented.

Berkeley and Philadelphia and the state of Oregon have deprioritized minor traffic violations like a broken tail light and expired registration, offenses that disproportionately affect communities of color, experts say.

Los Angeles approved a directive that allows officers to stop people for minor offenses only if the violation poses a significant risk to public safety. Officers are required to record their reasoning with their body-worn cameras while conducting these kinds of stops.

“Efforts to scale back law enforcement’s role in traffic enforcement do not enjoy broad support among police, and they have not yet been widely implemented or studied,” the report found. “But this area of reform is ripe for experimentation.”

In San Diego, proposed policy packages like the Preventing Over-policing Through Equitable Community Treatment ordinance — or PrOTECT — would limit when officers can stop and search people.

Proponents say the changes would guard against racial profiling and strengthen accountability. Law enforcement leaders have called the package radical and contend it would seriously hamper important police work.

Last year, the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee asked the City Attorney’s Office for a review of the proposal. It has not been formally considered by the City Council.

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