The LAPD SMART Program Is Smarter Crisis Resolution


MARK, MY WORDS - I recently attended a Coffee with a Cop community meeting. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is a community gathering arranged by LAPD and local residents that provides a chance to meet our local officers and talk directly with them about any issues of concern. Homelessness, with the public safety issues that it creates, was given the most attention. That, and two homelessness intervention programs that are competing for funding called Crisis Incident Response through Community Lead Engagement, or CIRCLE and the System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team, or SMART. 

SMART involves responding to 911 calls with teams of two people including a specially trained LAPD officer to address safety concerns and to detain, if necessary, along with an experienced trained clinician to assess whether or not a person is a danger to themselves or others. Thinking ahead and providing for possibly less than ideal encounters with the homeless mentally ill is rarely a consideration in LA City government policy due to a loud anti- police vocal minority and their “puppet theater ensemble” AKA, LA City Council. With Council representatives being allergic to common sense, common ground, and the opinions of constituents, at least on this issue, the LAPD is not. 

The CIRCLE program, our second option, is an LA branch of Urban Alchemy, a San Francisco based non-profit staffed with mostly ex-convicts. This is the same city, according to SF Mayor Breed, that is on the verge of collapse as she fights their politically captured city council to fund more police as soon as possible. SF’s council members, however, prefer instead to continue to compliment the “woke-king’s” new clothes rather than get their political hands dirty by doing the right thing. 

Are we really debating whether to fund cops or robbers here? I have no problem with helping former inmates to transition back into society, but there are many jobs that could be made available to them that don’t involve public safety and necessitate the professional skill sets that are required to diagnose mental illness. “No Fuckery”, a slogan on the Urban Alchemy website may be hip in prison, but it serves little purpose to a person having a psychotic breakdown brought on by meth or by simply forgetting to take their meds. 

One very important difference between the two programs is SMART’s authority to detain. Without this authority, getting an unwilling person on the path to recovery is unlikely. Whether or not that person chooses to walk that path is secondary to the triage that is the necessary first step in solving this crisis. CIRCLE does not have this authority. 

Removing vulnerable people from the street where there is a high likelihood of harm befalling them or others is long overdue. ALL residents, housed or unhoused, are affected by the atrophic status quo policies of LA City government and it is now critical to consider the WHOLE cost of this crisis...small businesses, public safety in parks and on streets, communicable health risks, blocking traffic and the public right of way, etc. 

Take for example, a naked man running around your apartment complex waving a broom and conversing loudly with himself about an imminent alien invasion. You call 911 and LAPD sends two patrol officers who show up and determine the man may be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. If the man is arrested, he will be back out on the street within hours. 

This is where SMART or CIRCLE may be called in to provide one of their two more appropriate options: An LAPD Mental Evaluation Unit consisting of an officer and a mental health clinician, or a non-profit with no authority to detain and a short proprietary training course. I have my thoughts. :/ 

LA is considering giving 8 million dollars to the CIRCLE program. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on SMART? The program that is staffed with trained police and clinicians? Given enough time, perhaps the CIRCLE program would prove to be effective but asking the public to place that bet this early in the game is irresponsible and dangerous. 

With less than 8 teams available to respond to 50 calls a day, why would we consider prioritizing the funding of a non-profit from San Francisco before giving SMART the resources they need? An insufficiently funded LAPD cannot be held responsible for a dysfunctional local government. Failure in LA, always trickles down from the top. 

As Angelenos are gas-lit with unsubstantiated claims of short-term success of homelessness programs, someone will surely notice the billions of dollars that are being wasted, right? With the effectiveness of these programs vs their costs not shared or verified, we can only hope that public trust will hit bottom before the city coffers do, and usher in the necessary policy changes. 

LAPD is in a funding and staffing crisis that is only getting worse. Credit goes to an embattled Mayor Bass who publicly recognized the need for adequate police staffing, but she is outnumbered. Before anything of lasting value can be accomplished to house the drug addicted or mentally ill homeless populations, the misdirection and outright lying by our city officials must end. 

I tried reaching out to the CIRCLE program for answers to my many questions, but as of this article, they have not responded. For example, why employ ex-cons? I imagine conflict resolution to be vastly different in prison than something we would want to see in a program that deals with the public. 

Of course, there is value that can be utilized by the experience of incarceration, but mental illness and meth addiction are rarely negotiable. They are, essentially, altered states of consciousness that are not conducive to reason. But choosing to leave these people on the streets to die a slow death while bringing the city down to its knees, is unacceptable. 

The outsourcing of essential services to non-profits has rarely yielded fruit for the public and often proven to be anything but a non-profit for those who are willing to game the system. Without transparency, accountability and

oversight, loopholes will always be found or created. We have a long history of examples (if anyone is interested in studying that sort of thing anymore) that strongly support the need for law enforcement. Calls to de-fund the LAPD are ridiculous enough coming from the public without “fake it ‘till ya make it” politicians who know better but repeat the call anyway. 

No one denies that there are some bad cops in the LAPD, but to suggest that the solution is to de-fund and replace them with some non-profit “hug” patrol is political nonsense. Crime and violence must first be met with arrests and appropriate counter force. It is the next step of long-term solutions that should be up for debate. 

Staffed with professionals, the LAPD SMART program is already embedded in LA City services. It will most likely be expensive, but like discount brain surgery, you get what you pay for. Ex-cons absolutely need opportunities to make a life for themselves post incarceration, but mental crisis intervention would not make my top 50 list of options. 

Let’s not conflate two issues here. Transitioning parolees is a separate discussion that warrants extensive reconsideration, but we are talking about a homelessness, addiction and mental illness crisis right now. Is that not complicated enough? 

CIRCLE may have a part to play in solving the homelessness issue, but like it or not, LAPD is tasked with upholding the law which is being broken in plain view and endorsed by the City. If there are problems within the LAPD, then the department needs to be fixed, not abolished. 

Our city is in trouble right now and needs immediate and practical solutions, not experimental programs. Arrests must once again be made with follow- through by a District Attorney’s office that prioritizes the rights of victims over criminals and housed residents along with the unhoused. 

Why a person is behaving violently or erratically is secondary to public safety and a separate but equal issue. It can’t however, continue to take precedent over the rule of law that is in place to protect the public at large. 

Los Angeles is paying a dear price for this policy and, like every other major issue that has been mismanaged by our municipal government, it will have to be cleaned up by us. 

Mental illness is devastating for the individual and those who love them, but publicly funding and maintaining a mentally ill and drug addicted community plan that leaves people on our streets to die does not ease the burden they carry. The “fox guarding the henhouse” allegory does not begin to do justice to the idea of the politicians who created this mess being expected and trusted to solve it. 

What happened to the mayor’s pre-election press conference proposition to re-purpose the now closed St. Vincent Hospital as a homelessness facility? There are apartments, hospital rooms, and a whole potential campus of clinical offices, psychological counseling services, job training and anything else that one would need to transition back into society. There is also a hotel adjacent to Good Samaritan Hospital and a whole wing of their old hospital building that could be utilized. 

Call it institutionalizing or housing or whatever doesn’t trigger the short- sighted, but with no more proof necessary that the current strategy has only made things worse for the housed and unhoused, it is time for a real and lasting solution. Staying the course is not an option but building a newer and kinder statewide system is. Accomplishing this, first requires allowing our police to do their job unhindered by self-absorbed and out of touch politicians who are afraid to step up. 

As a civilized society, we must consider every idea to relieve the suffering of those who need our consideration, empathy and help. Sadly, in this case, unsolicited intervention and forced institutionalization must be a part of the process. It is, to say the least, an unappetizing proposition, but a necessary one. 

The ugly truth of the matter is that not all of us will make it to a white picket fence finishing line. But nothing short of some level of forced institutionalization will work to end the wac-a-mole game we expect our police and health clinicians to continue playing while people are left languishing on our streets. 

The homeless crisis was created by our elected officials-full stop. We need to vote smarter and stop expecting the same political leopards to change their spots. LA is at a crossroads... the cost of leaving things as they are or the cost of cleaning them up. Both will cost billions but only one may solve the problem effectively. Our city dropped the ball for years and having to pay for politician’s past mistakes is a bitter pill to swallow, but like most illness, delaying treatment only brings longer suffering. 

The following links provide a better understanding of the whole story. 

--This CBS piece is one of the best I’ve seen on the subject.  

--Read how we got here. 

--The forgotten history.  

(Mark Dutton is a lifelong musician, music producer, and writer. He was arguing politics with his parents since he was a pre-teen. He majored in psychology and left college in his 3rd year on a 30-year magic bus trip around the world playing and writing music with some of the best in the biz. Mark is a contributor to