L.A. council advances plan to replace LAPD officers with social workers on non-violent police calls

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Los Angeles police officers talk to a homeless man on San Pedro Street along Skid Row in this undated photo. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles police officers talk to a homeless man on San Pedro Street along Skid Row in this undated photo. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council took its first step toward replacing police officers with social workers on nonviolent calls for service, voting unanimously Tuesday to develop a model for unarmed crisis response.

The motion instructs city officials to work with Los Angeles police and agencies like the L.A. Homeless Services Authority and county Department of Mental Health to offer “non-law enforcement solutions in circumstances that are non-criminal.” It comes amid calls nationwide for police divestment and reform in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

Herb Wesson, one of the six councilmembers who presented the measure, said it signals “the dawn of a new era of public safety in Los Angeles.”

“The bottom line is that the way things have been going is not working for our communities,” he wrote in a tweet. “This last month has made that crystal clear. We have a responsibility to listen to our people, and our people have spoken.”

According to the motion, funding cuts to social services have resulted in police “being the only solution for problems they should not be called on to solve in the first place.”

Under the plan, trained professionals like homeless outreach and medical workers would handle certain emergency situations, such as mental health crises, substance abuse calls and even neighborly disputes.

The measure instructs officials to study similar crisis intervention programs implemented elsewhere, specifically naming CAHOOTS, a community policing partnership that has been in place in Eugene, Oregon, since 1989.

In a recent interview with NPR, a leader of the organization — which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — said it handles 20% of local 911 calls, resulting in an annual savings of more than $15 million.

When L.A.’s motion was introduced, Robert Harris, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League told the L.A. Daily News his union has been discussing the idea “for a long time” and he supports the move. The union represents more than 9,000 of the LAPD’s 13,000 employees.

“For these calls that don’t necessarily need a law enforcement response, can we shift that response to somebody else?” he said.

Black Lives Matter’s L.A. chapter also spoke in support of the measure, saying the organization welcomes continued collaboration with the council.

“The move to have unarmed non-police respond to non-violent calls seems like it would be common-sense, but it’s quite courageous,” the group said in a series of tweets. “We appreciate those who have the vision to stand on the right side of history.”

The council also unanimously passed motion aimed at criminalizing racially motivated calls to 911. The city attorney is asked to work with LAPD to report on possible penalties for those who place such calls.

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