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California Cities Launching Alternative Policing Efforts for Mental Health 911 Calls

A year after it was announced in September 2020, a new project is finally getting off the ground in Oakland, California, that will shift some mental health 911 calls from police to civilian responders. Called MACRO—Mobile Assistance Community Response of Oakland—the project also seeks to shift some low-level calls to civilian responders, who can deal with neighbors in conflict and other “incidents where a police officer is not really a necessary responder,” according to Rashida Grinnage, coordinator of the city’s Coalition for Police Accountability.

The program has been funded for its first year with $1.85 million from the city and another $10 million from the state assembly. It is modeled off an alternative policing program begun in 1989 in Eugene, Oregon, known as CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. In 2019, the program handled about 20 percent of all 911 calls in Eugene and neighboring Springfield, rerouting 24,000 of them from police to civilian responders at a cost of about $2.5 million annually—a fraction of the $90 million in the combined budgets of police departments in the two cities.

Oakland’s MACRO project joins the city’s other alternative policing program, M.H. First. The initials stand for “mental health,” but they also commemorate Miles Hall, a 23-year-old who was suffering a schizoaffective episode when he was fatally shot by police in the Bay-area community of Walnut Creek during a botched response to a June 2019 mental health call.

The driving force behind the initiative, the Anti Police-Terror Project, has also launched a sister program in the state capital called M.H. Sacramento. Both that program and the one in Oakland currently run on dedicated hotlines staffed on weekends only. But there are plans in the works to expand into the use of in-person response teams as well as longer hours of operation.

Other cities with similar programs have realized not only cost savings but also better results than they were achieving with police responding to 911 mental health calls. In a one-month pilot program that concluded in July 2021, social workers at a New York City program called BHEARD—Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division—got 95 percent of people to accept help, far more than the 82 percent that police typical do. They also slashed the use of hospital rooms, where police send people over 4 out of 5 times, by providing treatment on the scene or in community-based treatment centers in 45 percent of their cases.

Sources: techdirt.com, abc10.com, oaklandca.gov, insider.com

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