On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times published an analysis on the amount of time that the Los Angeles Police Department actually spends responding to violent crime reports. Of the 18 million calls logged by the LAPD since 2010, less than 8% of them were reports of violent crimes (the Times define these as “homicides, assaults with deadly weapons, robberies, batteries, shots fired, and rape).

We appreciate that this analysis underscores that cops are often sent to resolve problems that should not require their coercive powers, but we wish the analysis had a deeper critique of the LAPD’s framing of mental health and their use of mental illness as a cover from examination. This framing in turn is used to justify the uses of force on service calls in general, despite the infinitesimal percentage of those mental health calls that are “violent” (that is, 9% of 2% of all 911 calls).

Allow our Policy & Education Co-Chair Gibran to explain. Below you will find the particular sections from the Times in bold, with Gibran’s response underneath. 

Although little consensus has emerged over types of calls that should be taken from police, there is some agreement around the idea that calls involving people with mental illness could be better handled by specially trained, unarmed professionals.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore expressed support for the idea recently, and the department is planning to begin diverting some suicide calls to a phone line run by a mental health organization.

But removing police from all mental-health-related calls would reduce the LAPD’s overall footprint in the city only minimally, since they accounted for less than 2% of all calls, according to the analysis. The Times included 911 calls of someone possibly being suicidal in the tally of mental-health-related calls.

Mental health calls also illustrate some of the challenges for Los Angeles or other cities that attempt to overhaul their police departments, experts cautioned.

Gibran: That “some agreement” is indicative of the LAPD’s willingness to offset blame for the violence they perpetrate on others rather than an admission of the systemic racist and classist violence inherent to policing. Michel Moore has campaigned, and is campaigning on the idea of shifting mental health calls with the implication that this will help reduce police uses of force in a sufficient way. 

Though ¼ of police shootings in the U.S. involve a victim with mental illness, we should not interpret that mental illness itself should excuse the police from responsibility for their actions, or accept the logic of their answers. This misdirection on behalf of the LAPD is nothing new. The idea that police violence can be explained away by the unfortunate circumstances of dealing with mental illness is a common sleight-of-hand that offsets blame for any violence that has occurred or will occur. The fact that only 2% of calls were specifically labeled as “mental health calls” only reinforces the argument that it is the structure of policing, and not the victims of the police, that are responsible for the brutality people experience on the streets. More dangerously, the takeaway from the LAPD’s comments would be that mentally ill people are violent, which is a common hurtful stereotype.

In more than 324,000 mental-health-related calls over the past decade, at least 9% of the time — 29,000 calls — the person reporting the incident indicated to the 911 dispatcher that the mentally ill person was acting violently, according to how the calls were coded by LAPD dispatchers.

It is unknown from the available data whether these calls were resolved peacefully or if the presence of armed police officers, who receive little training in how to help someone suffering from mental illness, escalated already tense scenarios and resorted to using deadly force as they have several times in recent years.

Gibran: Police departments nationwide often blame being put on mental health calls in reaction to scandals everywhere, and use mental illness as a shield for why they hurt the people they did (i.e. “we’re not trained to deal with these unstable crazy people, we had no other choice”). What results is a nasty case of Schrodinger’s mentally ill person: simultaneously a cause of police violence and a victim of unnecessary violence. -But their numbers show (A) very few of those calls involve potentially violent people and (B) they wouldn’t completely account for the systemic racism and abuse propagated by police forces, so why are we ever-focused on blaming mental illness as the source of police violence when it’s the cops pulling the trigger or ruthlessly beating people in broad daylight?

If we are to go by the LAPD’s own numbers, only 9% of mental health calls have reported that the mentally ill person in question was acting violently. I want to offer a little context to this number: when asked to explain why 1 in 3 LAPD interactions with people experiencing homelessness involved the use of force in 2019, Commander Donald Graham argued that the pervasiveness of mental illness, particularly PTSD, in the unhoused population was a major reason for officers’ use of force. Yet so few service calls involved mentally ill homeless people who were acting violently. We need to not only embrace the idea that the unhoused and those suffering from mental illness require better care and services from society than calling the cops, but also REJECT the argument that these groups are inherently more volatile and the violence inflicted upon these vulnerable people was and is inevitable. 

Nonetheless, as elected officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere contemplate sending psychologists or social workers instead of police when people with mental illness are in distress, the LAPD data underscore the stark reality that some of those calls will be violent.

“We need to decide how much risk as a society we’re willing to take that we might send someone into a situation that turns violent,” said Steve Matrofski, a criminologist who has studied the structures and effectiveness of police departments. “But we also must decide if we are willing to continue to take the risk that sending police into some situations actually make things worse. Where is the balance?”

Gibran: Sigh. We could start by making the size of the police force actually reflect the numbers they themselves put out. No amount of de-escalation training can address the stark reality that less than 8% of police calls were reports of violent crime, 2% of police calls involved mental health requests, and only 9% of that 2% involved people who were described as being violent at the time of the call. At some point we need to stop externalizing the blame for police violence and acknowledge the fundamental truth that policing IS violence, and our reliance on policing is not only hurting and killing people unnecessarily, but feeding into negative stereotypes that further reinforces the systems of oppression that keep people marginalized and afraid. 

Every dollar spent on a cop is a dollar kept from food, housing, health care, schools, therapists, etc. We’ve cut 9.4% from housing and community investment, 8.9% from economic and workforce development, while boosting police investment by 7.1% from 2019 to 2020. We police services like public transit that should ostensibly be improvements to the quality of life for all. We continue to sweep and destroy encampments, criminalize homelessness, but providing safe, sanitary housing and services is never in the cards. It’s not that things are a little imbalanced; they’re completely lopsided and failing. 

There’s always more to discuss when it comes to LAPD presence and what we lose in care and service by perpetuating their existence. Want to join our conversations? Ktown for All’s Policy & Education committee meets every other Tuesdays at 7 PM. All are welcome to attend!