By Eric Heinz, City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – The Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted today to create a pilot program to divert nonviolent emergency calls involving mental health issues from police officers to unarmed professionals.

The city will now seek to partner with a nonprofit organization to implement the pilot program, and will receive recommendations from relevant departments on creating a set of city employees responsible for responding to nonviolent calls for service currently handled by police officers.

“I believe that our actions go a long way in changing the world and providing hope for individuals of all races, generations, all religions,” Councilman Herb Wesson said. “Let us shock the world, and never forget that the winds in this country blow from the west to the east.”

The Los Angeles Police Department will be instructed to work with the county’s Department of Mental Health, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and other government agencies to develop a system in which a crisis-response team will handle nonviolent incidents, such as drug abuse, incidents related to mental health and neighbor disputes.

One of the arguments for the unarmed response team council members have made is that officers are asked to do too much and that they don’t receive the same training as mental health experts. If officers are less burdened with those kinds of responses, council members said it would ease their duties.

“If we’re going to be completely honest and fair to our police officers, we also have to be fair to the communities who are suffering from the lack of resources and services that they deserve,” Council President Nury Martinez said. “When we empower communities of color, they weigh in on the issues that impact them, and we need to continue to do that.”

The LAPD released a statement Wednesday evening in support of the pilot program.

“The Los Angeles Police Department fully supports the City Council’s actions today to establish responsible alternatives to respond to nonviolent calls that currently fall to the department to handle. For far too long, the men and women of the department have been asked to respond to calls from our community that would be more effectively addressed by others,” the LAPD statement read.

“…We remain committed to public safety and in response to the recent budget cuts and staffing reduction have begun the process to shift our operations away from less-essential activities. The alternative services envisioned by our elected leaders will ensure the public continues to have appropriate professionals available to maintain safe and healthy communities
for generations to come.”

When the motion to create the pilot program was introduced in June — following the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent unrest in Los Angeles and other cities nationwide — the union that represents LAPD officers issued a statement of qualified support for the motion.

“We agree with Councilmember Wesson that not every call our city leaders have asked us to respond to should be a police response,” the Los Angeles Police Protective League statement read. “We are more than willing to talk about how, or if, we respond to non-criminal and non-emergency calls so we can free up time to respond quickly to 911 calls, crack down on violent crime and property crime and expand our community policing efforts. We just need to be sure it’s done in a safe way for everyone, especially those that may be responding to these types of calls in the future.”

Reports from the nonprofit organizations seeking to partner with the city will be brought before the City Council before the pilot program is implemented.