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Berkeley's Specialized Care Unit was designed to be an alternative to Police, Let's keep it that way

Nearly a decade ago, after Kayla Moore was killed by Berkeley police in her apartment, family members and community groups alongside Copwatch demanded a non-police mental health crisis response. It was clear that Kayla—who experienced schizophrenia and was having a mental health crisis when police entered her home to perform a wellness check—would still be alive if there had been a different number to call. This demand continued to reverberate within Berkeley. Years of organizing helped push the City of Berkeley to recognize the importance of a mental health crisis response. Most recently, a coalition of groups came together in 2021 under the unified call for “Care Not Cops.” We demanded that the City of Berkeley create an independent, 24/7 mental health crisis team, unaffiliated with the fire department, police, or existing mental health departments of the city. We wanted to put an end to the cycle of mental health incarceration, and establish an emergency response that would provide care to residents in need.

Following months of community pressure, the city allocated funding to the proposed Specialized Care Unit (SCU) for fiscal year 2022, and the alternative we had asked for started to seem possible. It isn’t perfect—we advocated for the funding to come from the police budget, since the SCU should take most mental health calls off of BPD’s plate, and this demand has not been met—but there is a proposal on the table The SCU rollout is scheduled to begin in March 2023. This first phase will include outreach for the program as well as limited direct services.

The implementation plan for the SCU describes it as an alternative to police—not as a supplement (that is, not dispatching SCU and police together). The plan also describes procuring accessible vans for 24/7 transport, and building a team that consists of a behavioral health clinician, a peer specialist, and an EMT, all equipped to respond in a de-escalatory, stabilizing manner. The behavioral health clinician would be authorized to write 5150 referrals. This refers to the common practice of detaining an individual experiencing a mental health crisis for 72 hours in a psychiatric facility (an experience many describe as traumatizing in and of itself).

Recently, the Berkeley City Council approved a contract with Bonita House to run the SCU. While Bonita House is a non-profit mental health agency, they also have a history of cooperation with the cops. What will happen if both the SCU and Berkeley police show up to a scene? Who will have authority and command the scene?

Dispatch is another point of concern. While the SCU will be out on the streets of Berkeley doing their own community outreach, it will also be accessible through both 9-1-1 and through a different phone number, which has yet to be announced. For far too long, police have become a catch-all, and it will take a paradigm shift for 9-1-1 dispatch to make the transition to incorporating the SCU as a crisis response option. But without this shift, the SCU could be quickly absorbed into the police department. The dispatchers fielding 9-1-1 calls would need to triage calls by helping the caller identify if police are truly necessary—while fielding for caller bias such as racism and anti-homeless sentiment. Otherwise, police will end up being sent to all mental health calls and responding as they are now, inadequately and often escalating the situation.

As Bonita House and the City of Berkeley develop the pilot program, it is important for us to demand transparency about these conversations. The public voice is critical in these decisions, as the relationship fostered between the SCU and the public will influence the success of this two-year pilot. The city will measure success through results-based-analysis, which will take into account how many calls the SCU responds to, and who, in the end, was “better off” as a result of the program.

Despite our concerns, the development and implementation on the ground of an alternative response is long overdue. So long overdue that it feels too soon to be optimistic. It is crucial that the pilot for this program succeed—a triumph our community deserves. There are too many people who have not called for help when they needed it for fear for their own or another’s safety. There are too many people who have called for help in a time of need and instead have been traumatized, brutalized, incarcerated, even killed by Berkeley police. The stakes are high, not simply because of the demand for an alternative service, as has been proved by the other cities that have already implemented similar mental health crisis response programs, but to mitigate and one day end the harm that is caused by police in our community.

Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused.


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