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Who do you call when a loved one is having a mental health crisis? What about a domestic violence situation, or someone struggling with substance abuse? Do you trust the police to handle the situation safely, or do you worry their presence will lead to death or arrest? Oakland organizers have provided a police-free option to help people who struggle with that dilemma. It’s a free mobile first response crisis intervention team to provide assistance for people experiencing psychiatric emergencies. 

Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) is an Oakland-based coalition with the goal of eradicating police violence. Last August the group launched Mental Health First Oakland (MH First Oakland), a free hotline on Saturday and Sunday nights between 8PM and 8AM. Typically this is a time period when no other mental health services in the city are available. The free service helps people with psychiatric emergencies, but also extends to those battling substance abuse and people involved in domestic violence disputes. For APTP co-founder Cat Brooks, the program is six years in the making.

“These are the kinds of programs we’re talking about when we say ‘defund the police,’” Brooks said. “It’s really about investing in community-based solutions that keep communities whole and keep people out of jail.”

Outreach efforts to inform the community about the hotline were delayed due to the pandemic, but now that vaccinations are underway and statewide restrictions are loosening, the organization is gearing up to spread their message around Oakland in just a matter of weeks. APTP recently held a fundraiser to put up billboards around the city to inform people of the hotline number. Brooks says the hotline has been ringing every weekend—even with the limited outreach. Brooks says she and her team are planning to further spread the word by going into impoverished neighborhoods and homeless encampments to inform people about their options the next time they’re in trouble.

“We’re going to go into businesses and tell people, ‘Call us. Don’t call OPD,’ because really they’ll just be issuing a death sentence to someone who just needs to relax, a place to breathe, a person to listen to them, or maybe a referral to a longer-term care program,” Brooks said. “We can all pretty much agree that what the person doesn’t need is a bullet or handcuffs.”

One of the reasons MH First Oakland provides services on the weekends is because it’s not affiliated with the city of Oakland. However, the city is currently in the process of implementing a similar program. Last year the Oakland City Council approved a pilot program to dispatch paramedics and counselors to people going through a mental health crisis. The city-run program, titled Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO), was supposed to launch earlier this year, but has been coming up against some roadblocks. MACRO will operate through the Oakland Fire Department and is expected to be up and running by this summer. Brooks says the main difference between MH First Oakland and MACRO is that MACRO requires people to call 911 before being connected to the mental health response team. 

“There are swaths of us that will never dial 911 no matter what,” Brooks said. “You can’t tell someone in crisis that their call is going to be rerouted to a non-police service. Our people don’t trust that stuff. We tried to tell [the city council] that, but they moved forward with it anyway.”

MH First Oakland may be the first of its kind in the city, but the program had already been operating in Sacramento since January 2020. APTP believes in only calling police as an absolute last resort. So far in both Oakland and Sacramento, there has not been a single incident where volunteers felt police needed to intervene.

“We have to remember that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violent crime than they are to commit it,” Brooks said. “When people are in an elevated state of emotion, a badge and a gun escalates that. A cop is going to escalate the situation, [but] people who look like them and talk like them and are maybe from their own neighborhood [won’t].”

MH First Oakland is 100% volunteers-based. Many of the volunteers are trained mental health professionals. To date Brooks says they’ve trained more than 500 Oaklanders. In an eight-hour training session, volunteers are taught about de-escalation, how to differentiate between high blood pressure and a mental health crisis, what to do if police arrive on the scene, and how to conduct trauma-informed questioning. There is always a medical professional on call who acts as a supervisor so that volunteers never have to handle the situation entirely alone. Anybody can volunteer, but Brooks says they put a special emphasis on BIPOC.

Brooks says the ultimate goal is to have the hotline available 24/7. She says city officials in San Leandro, a neighboring city of Oakland, have expressed interest in implementing the program. MH First Oakland is already looking into expanding their service to Sundays.

“We know that the system [Oakland] currently has doesn’t work,” Brooks said. “We’re in this amazing political moment, so let’s try some of this other stuff.”

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Her written work can be found in the Washington Post, HuffPost, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Weekly, Daily Kos, Popsugar, The...