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USC program aims to help LAPD officers build trust, de-escalate encounters with homeless, mentally ill

Daily News - 12/4/2017

Dec. 04--Trayvon Chapman was homeless for more than a decade, and knows how quickly a situation can escalate on the streets.

Many homeless people have experienced significant trauma or have anger issues, which police officers can take personally, the Van Nuys resident explained.

That's when "guns are drawn and violence is implemented, and it's not needed," Chapman, 39, said.

Now, USC has partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department in a pilot project that aims to curb violence on city streets while building trust with the community's most vulnerable segments.

About 40 officers are taking part in the "groundbreaking" Law Enforcement Advanced Development (LEAD) program. Officers in the program collaborate with experts to help them more deftly tackle some of their most pressing issues, including homelessness, mental illness and addiction.

"We think we're engaged in the single most unique experiment in the country in terms of improving modern policing," Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, told reporters at a recent news conference at LAPD's downtown headquarters.

A primary aim of the program is to help officers gain more understanding and correctly interpret the actions of those they encounter on the job -- and thus "de-escalate (a situation) more successfully," she said.

"The greatest problem that people often confront who are front-line responders like the police is fear; fear of the populations that they have to deal with, fear of not being able to manage what seems to be either out-of-control behavior, escalating behavior or threatening behavior," Flynn said.

It's also important for officers to understand that persons who are homeless or have serious mental illness often don't respond well to typical interventions by police. These individuals sometimes assume aggression in situations where there may not be, Flynn said.

"The greatest problem that people often confront who are front-line responders like the police is fear; fear of the populations that they have to deal with, fear of not being able to manage what seems to be either out-of-control behavior, escalating behavior or threatening behavior."

-- Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Meanwhile, an officer's knowledge of what may have led to a person's situation can lead to greater confidence when dealing with vulnerable populations, she said. It's also knowing how and when to refer those in need to other service agencies for support.

Class topics range from extremism and conflict resolution to human trafficking to civil rights and civil liberties. Domestic violence, social media and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues are also on the menu.

New insights

A recent LEAD class on domestic violence opened up LAPD Officer Johnny Gil's eyes to potential triggers, including financial struggles, that he hadn't necessarily considered in the past, he said.

"I've been able to be more successful with de-escalating situations because of understanding of folks and ... the turbulence and issues they deal with," Gil said, noting he can now pass on that knowledge to officers he works with at LAPD's Training Division.

The 10-year LAPD veteran had to jump "through hoops" after applying at the last minute to get into the program earlier this year.

"I thought it was an opportunity to better myself in the department -- to work in this job the most effectively I could," Gil said of the new USC-LAPD initiative.

Gil and other officers taking part in the program, which culminates in a graduation ceremony, are doing so on their own personal time.

"I've been able to be more successful with de-escalating situations because of understanding of folks and ... the turbulence and issues they deal with."

-- LAPD Officer Johnny Gil

Twenty-five years after massive civil unrest led to the L.A. riots -- sparked by the sentiment that the police were biased -- LAPD has made significant inroads in building community trust. But gaps remain.

Fifty-eight percent of Angelenos polled believe LAPD would do the right thing "just about always" or "most of the time," according to a Loyola Marymount University Center for the Study of Los Angeles survey released this year. However, only 39 percent for African American surveyed and 54 percent for Latinos surveyed felt that way. The survey also found that the lower the income level, the lower the level of trust of police.

Rhonda Shields, who lives in a homeless shelter in North Hollywood, said she believes such a project is needed in Los Angeles.

"It's so nice of the LAPD finally to try and understand the public and deal with them instead of trying to shoot 'em, lock 'em up," said Shields, whose son Ronald Shields made headlines recently when he accused an LAPD officer of planting cocaine in his wallet, prompting a department investigation. "We're human beings just like they are."

Jack H. Knott, dean of USC'sSol Price School of Public Policy, noted that the experts are not just coming in and teaching classes.

"This is something we've designed (with LAPD) and are delivering together," he said.

Not a panacea

More training can certainly help officers respond to residents in mental health crisis, said Dustin DeRollo, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League. But DeRollo cautioned that it's far from a panacea for the increasingly difficult challenges confronting officers in urban areas.

"A police officer is not a mental health professional but they are asked to do that job way too often in cities across America," DeRollo said.

USC's Erroll Southers said when he co-teaches the part of the program about extremism and conflict resolution, he conveys the idea that the community -- rather than law enforcement -- knows best about what are their most pressing issues and how best to handle them.

"This is about the community owning the problem," Southers said.

What if it works?

Each officer in the program comes up with a community project throughout the course of the year, organizers said. One officer, for example, is working on protecting trafficked youth in her community.

The LEAD project, which will cost at least $350,000 in its first year, is being funded in the first two years by the Phillips Foundation and the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, Flynn said.

The program is a "very important pilot project" for which everyone in Los Angeles will eagerly await the results, said Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at UCLA.

If successful, she said, it would signal an expanded effort by law enforcement to use an effective multi-disciplinary approach in the community.

To guarantee efficacy, such a program should include voices from vulnerable populations as part of the educational team, Leap said.

"We need to know their experiences and they are experts as to how law enforcement has dealt with them in the past and how law enforcement needs to deal with them in the future," she added.

That sentiment was echoed by San Fernando Valley activist Jacques Alexander, who argues that those who have experienced life on the streets and in prison have important insights to offer law enforcement.

"If you haven't been bit by the snake, nobody can tell you how it feels," said Alexander, who is formerly homeless, spent two stints in prison and now aims to be a bridge between the police department and vulnerable populations.

In the LEAD project's first year, organizers will be relying on existing video material of people with serious mental illness to talk about their lives. As the program expands, however, they plan on bringing in such people with "lived experiences" so that they can speak and contribute to the program in a live fashion, said John Brekke, a USC professor of social work, who is organizing the content of the classes.

"(The program) opens (officers') eyes to looking at things from a different lens -- not just an enforcement lens -- but a societal lens," said retired LAPD Lt. Natalie Gipson, who is a consultant for USC on the project. It's not only "how can I better fix this problem but what are the underlying issues here so they don't have to keep reoccurring."

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(c)2017 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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