“Hello, yes, I’m calling because I think my brother is going to commit suicide…. He has a knife”
This is what Sonia López said when she called 911 from her home on East Adams Boulevard in LA’s Historic South Central neighborhood. It was a little after 5 p.m. on Dec. 18, 2021, and as Sonia told the dispatcher, her brother Margarito had come home yelling and locked himself in the bathroom before storming out of the house with a knife.
Officers arrived and found Margarito on the steps in front of his home, holding the knife to his own throat. The officers screamed at him in both Spanish and English to drop the weapon. A police helicopter hovered overhead. One neighbor yelled, “Junior, please don’t do it.”
Within minutes, Margarito was dead — but not by his own hand.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s mental health awareness training dates back to the 1940s. According to a quantitative study done by LAPD officer and therapist Carlos Martinez in conjunction with Touro University, in the early 1970s a competent four-part series of training was implemented in the department. “The training series explains an officer’s legal obligations and insight on how to approach a person who is mentally disordered,” the study reads, “and ends with disposition best practices such as notifying the Hospital Detail, how to complete an application for 72-hour detention, and guidelines for non-detention placements.”
The study notes that the training remained largely unchained through the 1980s, but in 1992, in the wake of the LAPD’s horrific beating of Rodney King and the bad press that accompanied it, the department created the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU) to train and educate officers. The goal was to reduce the potential for violence during encounters with people in crisis.
Upon Sonia López’s usage of the word “suicide,” the proper procedure was to call the MEU so that specially trained staff could handle the call. The death of Margarito López illustrates the ongoing shortcomings of the LAPD’s solution to addressing mental crisis calls.
The Mental Evaluation Unit
On the LAPD YouTube channel, there is an informational video titled Mental Evaluation Tour. The video shows police officers role-playing situations that would require MEU involvement. In the first example, a man claims that the voices in his head are telling him to end his life. The officers immediately acknowledge that, because of the comment, he is now eligible for a 5150 evaluation. 5150 is the number of the section of the Welfare and Institutions Code that allows the police to detain a person for up to 72 hours, even if it’s against the person’s wishes, in order to get them evaluated by mental health professionals. In the video, Capt. Brain Bixler says that MEU is to be contacted prior to booking whenever a person is suspected of having a mental illness.
If responding officers believe a case should be handled by MEU, they notify the MEU’s triage desk. Here, the trained staff takes calls 24/7 and talks officers through interactions with people in mental crises. They offer guidance to the responding field officer and document the interaction. They may also dispatch a Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team (SMART) if they deem it necessary. According to the MEU Program Overview, a SMART team is a pairing of an officer and a clinician that work in tandem to deescalate and stabilize a person in a mental crisis and conduct an interview to decide if they need to be 5150ed. They provide intervention, referral, or placement for people with mental health issues. The hope when deploying a SMART team is to avoid unnecessary incarceration or hospitalization and to ensure that the person in need gets connected with care.
Prospective police officers don’t receive mental health–related training while at the academy. They’re eventually given 40 hours of training Mental Health Intervention Training (MHIT), but not until they’re already spent 11 probationary months in the field. As of July of last year, 4,824 of the 9,974 LAPD officers had been trained.
The goal of this training is stated at the start of the MHIT course outline. “At the completion of this course the student will be able to identify a person suffering from a mental illness or in a mental health crisis, properly manage and deescalate the situation and conduct a comprehensive assessment of the individual pursuant to 5150 of the Welfare and Institutions Code.”
After the Newton Precinct received the call from Sonia López, multiple officers pulled up to the scene and immediately drew and aimed their guns at Margarito as they stepped out of the car. Margarito, holding a knife to his throat, was also hit with a bright spotlight attached to a cop car and three sets of squad car headlights. Police officers shouted demands to put down the weapon, a police helicopter circled above, and neighbors begged him to listen.
After the police repeatedly ask him to drop the knife, they fired a “bean bag” projectile in an effort to disarm him. The projectile proved ineffective, and a dispatcher can be heard saying they have an RA, or rescue ambulance, on standby. An RA is used when a patient requires intensive care. It is staffed with a paramedic and has more medical equipment than a regular ambulance.
López moved a few steps forward and sat at the bottom of the steps of his home, returning the knife to his throat. After a few minutes, he stood up, raised the knife in the air, took two steps, and stopped. This was when a second bean bag projectile — but the sound of that caused other cops to begin shooting their own weapons. One of the officers yelled “bean bag only, bean bag only” — and then opened fire on Margarito with his duty weapon. Three gunshots were fired by officers José Zavala and Julio Quintanilla; the second one killed López. The third hit him after he was already on the ground.
An officer yells “get a stick” as they approach the 4’10”, 98-pound, 22-year-old lying in a pool of his own blood. In the background, neighbors scream.
The officers walk approximately 10 feet to López. As they turn him on his stomach to handcuff him, the camera catches his eyes, open wide but seemingly with no life in them.
The Mental Evaluation Unit was never called.
In Margarito’s autopsy, THC and alcohol were found in his system with a blood alcohol content of 0.184% — an amount that suggests he may have been drunk to the point of not being in control of his actions. He also had Midazolam in his system, which is a depressant that slows the central nervous system.
The López family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in October of last year. According to Luis Carrillo, the attorney representing the family, “[The officers] did not have great command in control that day. Number one, because they didn’t call the Mental Evaluation Unit, and number two, they didn’t designate certain officers to be the contact officers and the other ones to be the backup officers.
“They were all just yelling and yelling.”
The Current State of Mental Health Resources
In a briefing on Sept. 27, 2022, Capt. Lynette Miles reported to the LA Police Commission that the MEU teams handled 10,918 of the 31,923 mental health calls that came in between January 2021 and July 2022. The average response time for the calls that were handled was about 30 minutes.
Officer-in-Charge of the MEU Training Unit Det. Elizabeth Reyes says that the MEU prioritizes a range of high-risk situations including “jumper calls,” or situations involving someone who is suicidal.
LAPD Police Chief Michel Moore commented on Margarito’s case in an interview with Larry Mantle on KPCC’s Airtalk on Jan. 19, 2022. He said that the MEU resources “should have been dispatched because [López] had an edged weapon and those protocols should have dispatched such a resource.” Though he admits that the MEU should have been involved, he also says “Whether it would have resulted in a different outcome we’ll never know but certainly that’s what we expect is that we get those resources there at the earliest opportunity.”
In cases like Margarito’s the police typically justify their actions by claiming imminent threat.
Deinstitutionalization is the process of releasing people from long-stay institutions like state hospitals and replacing those institutions with community mental health services. In the 1960s, deinstitutionalization was implemented throughout the United States which pushed people with mental illnesses either to their families who didn’t know how to help or to the streets to fend for themselves with underfunded community services. This began the decades-long high demand and low supply of mental health resources.
During Moore’s report in the September 27 briefing, he argued that the Los Angeles Police Department is under-resourced. He said that the LAPD is able to handle between 20% and 25% of mental health-related calls “at best” with the current capability of the SMART team model.
The LAPD’s 2022 budget was nearly $1.9 billion, an $87 million increase from the previous year.
Societal Issues at Play
Carrillo suggests there was a racial component in the case.
“If he was a blond, blue-eyed beach boy out on those steps they would not have shot at him like they did against Margarito López,” he says. “Remember Monopoly, the get-out-of-jail card? Skin color is a big get-out-of-death pass.”
According to the LAPD 2021 Crime and Initiatives report, there were 37 people shot by police in 2021. Twenty-four of the victims were Hispanic, seven were Black, five were white and one was classified as “other.” In their report, they state that “more than half of the officer-involved shooting incidents involved individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.”
In a haunting video on the California Commission of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) website, multiple people are depicted as dealing with a mental health crisis to the tune of music fit for a horror movie. In this dramatization, the people are put in slow motion and their voices are distorted. After each instance is shown, there is a jarring sound effect that sounds like white noise accompanied by “Did you know?” facts about mental illness.
Videos like the one on the California POST website play a role in stigmatizing mental illness and creating fear around it instead of acceptance. Andy Imparato, Executive Director of Disability Rights California, has been open about living with bipolar disorder. As it relates to stigma he emphasizes “De-otherizing the concept of mental illness and then also recognizing that the way a police intervention happens for a middle-class white person is just very different than the way it happens for people that aren’t in that category and the police need to be careful of how they interact with people who are not used to seeing the police as in any way a benign thing.”
Mental Health Intervention Training provides a way forward in destigmitizing mental illness for cops. During their training, NAMI brings in people who live with a mental illness along with their family members. This humanizes people with mental disorders because they tell the officers what kind of medication they take and what their life is like.
Imparato says “The goal is disability-friendly, affirming, culturally and linguistically competent services that are not overly critical and that pay attention to social determinants of health.”
There is a scarcity of staffing and money allocated throughout the mental health resources available to those who need help. What someone may need at the beginning of their treatment versus what they need at various times throughout is bound to change and the system wasn’t created with that in mind.
Brittany Weissman, the former Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Los Angeles County says, “We could do better with the resources we have if things were more properly connected and there was more coordination between county departments, the county and the state, and the county and other counties. There’s just a lot of room for people to fall through the cracks because there’s no one person or place helping to guide and shepherd a person’s care through every stage of the game.”
The MEU does have a subgroup that intends to solve this lack of connection. CAMP or the Case Assessment Management Program coordinates and facilitates treatment for individuals with repeat encounters with emergency first responders, individuals who are at risk of violent encounters with police (suicide by cop, veterans with PTSD, school violence, jumpers), and individuals with a mental illness who are at risk of committing mass violence. CAMP would have worked with López had the MEU been called.
Weissman said if there was adequate communication and adherence to protocol, it is possible that Margarito López and others like him would be alive and getting treatment today.
After filing a wrongful death suit in October, the López family awaits notice of whether or not their case will go to trial.
“Instead of helping him they just killed him,” Sonia López said in a press conference. “And right now everybody’s just afraid to call the police for help.”