News

These Cities Are Stopping Police From Responding to Homelessness, Drug Use, and Mental Health Issues

Los Angeles proposed the change Tuesday. San Francisco and Albuquerque have already made it.
June 17, 2020, 6:20pm
Los Angeles Police officers in riot gear stand guard during a protest over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, at Los Angeles City Hall. (Kirby Lee via AP)​

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Several cities around the country are considering pulling police back from responding to calls that have little to do with violent criminal activity — including instances of homelessness, mental health issues, and drug use — so unarmed, trained professionals can step in instead.

Los Angeles City Council members introduced a motion Tuesday asking that the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and other city departments work together to come up with a model that would have “appropriate non-law enforcement agencies” addressing nonviolent calls, according to the LA Times.

The proposal comes during budget cuts to the Los Angeles Police Department, a response to the widespread calls to defund police agencies so cities can spend that cash on social and economic programs in historically overpoliced Black communities. The risk of being killed during a law enforcement interaction is 16 times greater for people with severe, untreated mental illnesses, compared to those without, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center.

If Los Angeles were to pare back the responsibilities of its police force, the city would join San Francisco and Albuquerque in creating alternative ways to respond to nonviolent police calls after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which triggered weeks of protests to demand racial justice and police reform.

Floyd, who died on March 25 after ex-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for several minutes, was initially stopped by police for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. He was unarmed.

Minneapolis’ city council has since said it’d like to disband the city’s police force altogether and start again with a different public safety approach.

Similar initiatives also got a boost from President Donald Trump’s executive order on police reform this week. The Trump administration plans to direct resources toward so-called “co-responder” programs that “increase the capacity of social workers working directly with law enforcement agencies.” But the executive order was vague on what that would look like.

Here’s what other cities are doing to change the way their officers respond to calls:

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque announced this week that it will form a new force of unarmed specialists that will respond to 911 calls about homelessness, drug use, mental health, and more.

Mayor Tim Keller has said that the agency will serve alongside the city’s police and fire departments and that calls to 911 regarding mental health issues or homelessness will be rerouted accordingly. The city’s police chief is in favor of the shift, since officers are overburdened with responding to these types of calls, according to the Washington Post.

Keller said the model won’t take away funding from core policing efforts, however.

“There is a huge portion of our community that doesn’t necessarily want two officers showing up when they call about a situation with respect to behavioral and mental health,” Keller told the Post. “So this is a new path forward for us that has been illuminated because of what we’ve learned during these times.”

San Francisco

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said last week that her city’s police department would no longer respond to non-criminal complaints like school disciplinary actions, neighborly disputes, and homelessness.

Trained, unarmed professionals will now be dispatched to handle those calls..

How that new team will be paid for isn’t clear yet, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But it’s part of a broader plan to change the San Francisco Police Department’s role in the community. Breed’s reforms also ban the use of military-grade weapons, like tanks and tear gas, against unarmed people.

“We know that a lack of equity in our society overall leads to a lot of the problems that police are being asked to solve,” Breed said in a statement announcing the plans. “We are going to keep going with these additional reforms and continuing to find ways to reinvest in communities that have historically been underserved and harmed by systemic racism.”

Eugene, Oregon

Programs addressing nonviolent 911 calls primarily with social workers and other trained specialists aren’t unprecedented and have worked in the past. In Eugene, for example, workers with Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or “Cahoots,” have been responding to 911 calls about behavioral issues and welfare checks since 1989.

The program is now hearing from cities across the country that want to replicate its work, according to KVAL, the local CBS affiliate. The program’s team responds to about 20% of 911 calls, while taking up a small portion of the city’s police budget. Some in the city are currently petitioning for Cahoots to receive even more funding, via budget cuts to other parts of the police force.

“Across the nation, communities are demanding that elected leaders defund police, reallocate resources, and re-evaluate current approaches to public safety,” Cahoots wrote in a statement published to their website Sunday, regarding racism being a public health issue and their solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “As the first program of our kind, we are in a unique position to share our experience and knowledge with other cities that are now considering alternatives to policing. We are humbled by this and have become acutely aware of our privileged position within a system designed to oppress.”

Cover: Los Angeles Police officers in riot gear stand guard during a protest over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, at Los Angeles City Hall. (Kirby Lee via AP)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.