California Cities Experimenting With Civilian Responses To Mental Health Crisis Calls

from the fewer-chances-somone-will-be-helped-to-death-by-police-officers dept

More cities are adopting an approach to mental health emergency calls that steers calls away from police officers and towards professionals who are trained to respond to mental health crises with something other than force deployment.

Early results have shown promise in cities like Denver, Colorado and New York City, New York. These response teams are not only better suited to handling mental health calls, but they’re less expensive than sending cops and/or needlessly involving the carceral system. Law enforcement agencies command outsized portions of city budgets. Shifting small portions of these budgets to alternatives like these makes better use of these funds, providing residents with options that are far more effective — and cost effective — than the usual method of sending more expensive government employees to respond to problems they’re ill-equipped to handle.

A couple of cities in California are experimenting with mental health response teams. The teams in use in Sacramento and Oakland were formed by residents in response to the tragic killing of a young man suffering from schizoaffective disorder by police officers.

That day, Miles was having a schizoaffective episode at the family’s home in Walnut Creek, CA, a city a few miles east of Oakland.  

First Miles’ grandmother, and then Taun Hall herself, called 911. Hall wanted to get her son to a hospital where he could receive treatment. She felt her only option was to call the police.

But when the Walnut Creek police officers arrived, the situation escalated quickly.

“[The police officers] were shouting at him and, you know, doing commands,” Hall said. “Someone who is mentally impaired doesn’t respond, doesn’t understand, because they’re not in the same frame of mind.”

Miles Hall ran towards the officers, who first shot him with ‘less-lethal’ ammunition called bean bag rounds. When he continued running, two officers shot him with their handguns. Miles Hall was transported to John Muir Hospital, where he died from his injuries.

MH First Sacramento and MH First Oakland are both part of the same project. The MH stands for Miles Hall just as much as it stands for mental health. Both are offshoots of the Anti Police Terror Project, an advocacy group seeking to end the longstanding use of violence by police officers against people of color. Currently, both response teams are limited to running mental health hotlines on weekends only but both hope to expand on that with the recent COVID wave starting to recede in the state. They’re also hoping to secure more funding to expand their operations to offering response teams that can handle mental health calls requiring in-person assistance.

Residents of Oakland will soon have one more option for mental health calls that won’t involve law enforcement.

Now, a new pilot project has been funded by the city of Oakland to take even more of the workload off the shoulders of the police.

“A project called MACRO, Mobile Assistance Community Response of Oakland,” explained [Coalition for Police Accountability coordinator Rashidah] Grinage. “And what it does is it says that 911 calls that are not necessarily required to have a police response, namely their low-level calls, they are sometimes mental health crises, but there can be other kinds of incidents as well. Conflicts between neighbors, problems with somebody blocking a driveway, incidents where a police officer is not really a necessary responder, MACRO will provide civilian responses to these kinds of 911 calls for service.”

MACRO is based on the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program currently running in Eugene, Oregon. That program has achieved considerable success, not the least of which is the savings of over $6 million a year in public safety spending.

It’s too early to tell whether these programs will replicate the successes seen elsewhere. But it is clear more options like these are necessary if we want to keep more people alive. Police officers shouldn’t be expected to handle these situations well. They’re simply not trained to perform this sort of public assistance. Unfortunately, they’re the default option in most cases, which means officers responding to mental health calls will fall back on the training they have received, which mostly involves subduing people and responding to perceived threats — neither of which tends to work out well for people who are already struggling to maintain their grip on reality.

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