THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: LAPD needs response teams that prevent deaths

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death.”

That is what one grieving parent told a phalanx of reporters a year ago in Virginia. Her son had serious mental health challenges. Yet he died at the hands of law enforcement. 

We’ve seen endless variations of this tragic pattern of death in Los Angeles almost always as in Virginia at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department officers or Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.

The tragedy happened yet again with the slaying by LAPD officers of a young woman in Panorama City June 15. Officers claimed the woman had a knife and threatened them and family members. If true, this should raise massive red flags. 

A woman with a knife threatening family members? That has the all too familiar signs of someone that had at least for that moment a serious mental challenge. Meaning that the admonition from the Virginia mother that mental illness should not be your ticket to death had serious, grim consequences and most important might have been avoided.

There is one simple way to ensure that. Police should not be the first responder to an individual experiencing a mental health episode and who poses a potential physical threat to others. The mandatory first response in Los Angeles should be that of a prevent death crisis response team. 

It would quickly rush to the scene where an individual is experiencing a mental crisis. The team would be thoroughly trained in the vast array of counseling, therapeutic and psychological techniques to talk down someone who poses a threat to others. 

The LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department should be present but only as a last resort back up resource if all non-violent talk down methods fail.

Countless studies on the use of prevent death crisis response teams in other cities as the first and, in many cases only response, has prevented the use of deadly force such as that in Panorama City. A study conducted by the New Jersey Monitor in 2023 found that a crisis response team at the scene of threatening mental health related situations cut the use of force and arrest in over 95% of the cases. Other studies of similar prevent death response team interventions have shown similar results.

City officials and the LAPD have talked repeatedly about the use of such teams in potential life-threatening situations as the Panorama City tragedy. And there are pilot programs currently in place. However, the brutal and tragic reality is that the LAPD and sheriff’s deputies still in most mental health challenged cases, are the first responders. And, as was the case in Panorama City and in other past cases, the result has often been death.

That raises another question about the LAPD overuse of deadly force. There have been countless reports, recommendations, rule changes, investigations, civilian checks and balances on the LAPD on the overuse of deadly force. It’s as if none of those things ever happened or meant little to nothing. 

The LAPD shootings continue to remain uncomfortably high. Even when the LAPD shoots fewer people, the death toll from the shootings still remains high.

The Panorama City slaying again rams home the perennially troubling issue of what, when and how LAPD officers should use non-lethal force. The official version is that officers responded to a violent incident call at a home and confronted the woman allegedly with a knife who resisted orders to drop the weapon and didn’t respond to a Taser.

What makes the slaying dubious is that it and the other shootings come in the wake of the historic legislation the state Legislature passed mandating strict training, accountability and discipline procedures for the use of force by officers. Since that law was passed in 2020, however, the number of shootings, some questionable, has not dropped. The LAPD shootings are a prime example.

The one certainty in the latest killing is that it’s not an isolated case of deadly force used by the LAPD. So the question again in the latest shooting is did she have to die? 

The stock answer is that whenever a suspect poses a direct threat to an officer, or an officer responds to a potentially life-threatening incident, he or she can use whatever force is necessary up to and including deadly force. In more cases than not, this is a strictly subjective judgment call. And, in almost all cases, officers that use lethal force are shielded from prosecution in the absence of iron-clad proof of wrongdoing. No LAPD officer has been prosecuted for the use of deadly force on duty — no matter how questionable — in many years.

The way to avoid this unnecessary tangle of the highly questionable use of force in dealing with those with possible mental health challenges is the mandatory use of prevent death crisis response teams in all such situations. City officials have talked a good game about that need. Now it’s time to fully respond, not with more talk but with action. In that absence, it’s only a matter of time before the next tragedy happens.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m. 

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