When Lt. Lionel Garcia retired from the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit in April after more than 30 years on the force, he left behind a far different unit then the nascent program that was in place when he took over in March 2008.
Over 7 years, Lt. Garcia helped to shape a unit that many consider to be a national model.
“My attitude toward mental illness has changed since I worked this position. When I started out I had the misconception that everyone with mental illness is in a crisis and that’s not true. There are a lot of people who are able to take medication and control it and lead positive lives,” Lt. Garcia said.
Lt. Garcia rarely goes out on calls these days but when he does it to help his team respond to people threatening to jump from high rooftops or bridges.
“I’m proud to say that every time I’ve gone out we’ve managed to stop those individuals from what they set out to do,” he said.
Among the unit’s achievements is a program partnering cops with clinicians who respond to mental health crisis calls. These System-wide Mental Assessment Response Teams (SMART) conduct in-depth assessments of individuals and if needed, the clinicians can place people in hospitals or other community-based facilities so they don’t end up in jail. A triage desk staffed by sworn officers and clinician personal receives phone calls from patrol officers responding to crisis calls. It’s mandatory that officers call the triage desk before approaching a subject who appears to be having a mental health crisis. Last year, the triage desk fielded 14,000 calls from officers.
Another part of the unit matches LAPD detectives and clinicians who form a Case Assessment Management Program (CAMP) to follow up with those who have an encounter with the police. The team’s objective is to ensure that the person is getting treatment and staying out of the system.
Lt. Garcia said these initiatives are based on strategies he helped restructure and redesign that officers must follow when encountering a person with mental illness and that have helped turn the Los Angeles Mental Evaluation Unit into a learning center for many other police forces around the country.
“Most cities believe Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) training is where you start without a thought to establishing procedure of what to do when you encounter a person in crisis. You can train a cop how to recognize someone going through a mental health crisis, but how should they approach them and get them to a hospital? That’s the missing gap,” Lt. Garcia said.
To highlight his unit’s effectiveness, Lt. Garcia points towards statistics that show out of the 14,000-plus calls received last year that only 2.8 percent include a use of force. He said that number was low compared to other forces where that number can be as high as 50 percent.
Lt. Garcia also noted that 81 percent of the 14,000-plus mental health crisis calls in 2014 came from homes and only 19 percent were about the indigent.
“I think most people assume the problem is with the homeless, but that’s not true,” he said.
Lt. Garcia said that the majority of calls come from homes where people are having a mental health crisis.
“Everyone thinks it happens on streets, but it’s coming out of the suburbs. We spend a lot of time in neighborhoods trying to deescalate situations where people haven’t developed coping mechanisms,” he said.