On a Saturday night in February, under an Oak Park drug clinic’s fluorescent lights, a small team of volunteers started building a new system for responding to people in crisis.
Registered nurse Asantewaa Boykin trained some new arrivals on mental health first aid, while two street outreach workers talked strategy in a cluttered office. They brewed coffee and ordered pizza, waiting for calls or messages from people in psychiatric distress.
Their line — 916-670-4062 — is open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Friday through Sunday. When someone needs to talk, they talk. If there’s an incident out on the street, they hop in the RV. It’s a donated rig, and it gives the team a safe place to keep supplies and provide care.
“Most police departments have what they flaunt as specialized services for folks having mental health crises,” Boykin said. “The pushback I would give, is why do you have guns?”
The M.H. First team launched in January as an effort of Anti Police-Terror Project Sacramento. The goal is to create a community response to people in mental health crisis, so law enforcement doesn’t show up and potentially escalate the situation, Boykin said.
The idea of finding alternatives to policing gained traction in the wake of George Floyd’s death, as thousands of demonstrators demanded limits on law enforcement. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg just proposed using $5 million from the city’s general fund to create a group of non-law enforcement officials to handle mental-health related 911 calls.
"Why is it when a family member is in crisis, that the only recourse in society is to call 911?" Steinberg said on CapRadio’s Insight. "We put our officers in situations that they are not adequately prepared for and because they have weapons, put others in danger."
Local law enforcement groups are making efforts to respond more appropriately to people in distress. But alternative groups like this one say they’ve already got it covered.
A warm handoff
The M.H. First team says they’re filling a gap — right now, a bystander who sees someone behaving erratically might not know of any other option except to call the police.
Sacramento County has a 24-hour mental health crisis line, but it’s not set up for in-person interventions. Instead, operators refer people to a system of clinics and crisis facilities that critics describe as backlogged. Nonprofit-run suicide lines are generally not designed to send counselors to a scene.
At the Sacramento Police Department, social services administrator Bridgette Dean is trying to find a better way to address mental health crises. But she says the resources aren’t always available.
“Would I love a community and structure where there was complete access for anybody in crisis to walk into a 24/7 clinic and get services right now? 100% I would love to see that,” she said. “But until that happens, we will be there. When you call 911, we come … And so I think our community needs to start understanding that whether anybody believes law enforcement should be in that position, we are fully in that position.”
She says the mission of the mental health and homelessness teams she oversees is to assess someone’s needs, and get them into professional care when appropriate.
Right now, patrol officers determine if something is a mental health call. If it is, an available officer from the mental health unit picks it up. Once on scene, they assess whether someone needs or is willing to accept mental health help. If they are, the officer can connect them to a nonprofit, or call in a community support team from Sacramento County, made up of a clinician and a peer counselor. If the person is gravely disabled or poses an immediate threat to themselves or others, officers can take them to the hospital under a 5150 hold.
“And they're doing that in their uniforms,” Dean said. “And while I understand fully some people have a trigger reaction to law enforcement, I do think that a lot of our training has specifically addressed the need to respect that, and to also be able to calm them in the process by using terminology that's a little bit different, right, that's based in social work.”
But some advocates say any interaction with law enforcement can intensify the situation to a dangerous degree.
“If you’re paranoid and you think folks are out to get you and the police show up, it’s just going to make things worse,” Boykin said.
Peer crisis counselor Niki Jones said onlookers and officers too often see people experiencing mental health crisis as dangerous,
“When in reality they’re the victims of pretty constant misinterpretation and injustice,” she said. “We don’t need weapons. We know that the strongest de-escalating tools are kindness and our words, and those historically work most of the time.”
M.H. First hasn’t responded to any crises involving law enforcement yet, but they do train their volunteers in “cop watching”, as it’s called in some activist circles, as a way to hold officers accountable on the scene.
Dean says she’s aware that there are community groups trying to de-escalate situations involving mentally ill individuals. She said she’s open to collaboration.
“We need to have partners who provide the services to individuals so we can get that warm handoff made,” she said. “We may be the first contact, but our job is to get that person into the hands of the expert who can then help them continue to move forward and heal.”
A pattern of police violence
The history of negative interactions between police officers and mentally ill individuals hits close to home in Sacramento, and some experts say the risk is even higher for mentally ill people of color.
In 2016, Sacramento police officers killed Joseph Mann, an African American 51-year-old who struggled with addiction and mental illness. Neighbors called police after seeing Mann waving a knife on the street. The responding officers attempted to hit him with their vehicle before shooting him 14 times. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s office cleared the officers of legal wrongdoing.
In 2017, Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies fired 28 shots at 32-year-old Mikel McIntyre, a black man in mental health crisis who was throwing rocks at officers.
The pattern has played out dozens of times across the country in recent years. Atlanta veteran Anthony Hill was shot by police while off his bipolar medication and acting erratically. Osaze Osagie died in Pennsylvania, shot by officers on a “wellness check” prompted by his worried family. A quick search for mentally ill black men killed by police brings up name after name.
Erin Kerrison, a Berkeley professor who studies race, health and criminal justice, says the way police react to someone who has a mental illness, or even seems like they might have a mental illness, depends heavily on the color of that person’s skin and the neighborhood where the incident occurs.
“Even that framework of people who are suffering from mental illness pose a threat that’s fundamentally flawed,” she said. “And that also has a racial component to it with respect to whose pain or suffering is recognized and acknowledged.”
A new model
The M.H. First team did not have a tally of the number of calls they’ve taken. But they say they were often going out several times a night before COVID-19 hit. They’re still actively trying to get the word out to the community.
The list of situations they say they’re prepared to respond to includes: someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, someone running in and out of traffic, someone screaming on a street corner, someone threatening self harm or violence, or someone who asks for a wellness check on a friend they’re concerned about.
On nights they don’t get calls, M.H. First team members train new volunteers and monitor social media for cries for help. They also drive around to businesses that are open late and give them the phone number to call, in case employees see anything strange happening outside.
Boykin says the group is actively engaged in conversations about what defunding the police and replacing them with community workers would look like.
“Folks are reaching out to us because we built that framework,” she said. “We’re an example of what an alternative can look like, and can help folks replicate what fits their conditions.”
This model has been shown to work in other places. The city of Oakland is currently launching a $40,000 pilot to test non-policing strategies on mental health calls. Their program is modeled after a project in Eugene Oregon, which was started by social activists three decades ago but is now city-supported and funded at around $80,000 annually. Its organizers argue that sending community mental health workers out to these scenes is cheaper than paying firefighters or police officers.
In Sacramento, the mayor’s office hasn’t released details on who would respond to mental health calls if not police.
Until then, the M.H. First team says they’ll work with the volunteers and donations they have, and remain available to pick up the phone.