After years of community advocacy, the city of Berkeley plans to launch a 24/7 mental health crisis response team that is independent from law enforcement this summer.
In light of increased conversations, particularly those stemming from the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, the city is launching its Specialized Care Unit, or SCU, according to Lisa Warhuus, director of the city’s health, housing and community services.
“Our hope is that by providing this alternative response, guided by principles of harm reduction and diversion, we can better serve community members in need,” Warhuus said in an email. “Connecting clients to these resources will involve leveraging the current network of Berkeley service providers as a continuum of care to provide necessary support.”
With plans to establish SCU underway, the city has conducted an “extensive community engagement and design process” to analyze different crisis models, Warhuus added.
Warhuus stated that the SCU is funded as a pilot program for two years. Once implemented and evaluated, the city council and mayor will determine any next steps.
Lisa Teague, a People’s Park activist and community member, welcomed the new development noting that the SCU is something that is “much needed.”
Teague said the current mental health crisis team is “directly connected to the police” and alleged that in almost all situations, the presence of police “escalates the situation.”
They said that people are “more” willing to call the mental health crisis team if the police do not show up.
Teague mentioned the example of Kayla Moore, an African American transgender woman who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in Berkeley Police Department custody in 2013, as the starting point for advocacy for changed response teams.
According to a previous Daily Cal article, Moore died after being restrained by officers responding to a 911 call from Moore’s roommate, who claimed that Moore was experiencing a mental health crisis.
Paul Kealoha Blake, director of Consider the Homeless!, a grassroots organization aiming to provide services for unhoused people, alleged that Moore “would not have died” if she received care from mental health workers, as opposed to the police officers who he alleged did not provide the necessary resources.
Moore’s death had sparked various calls for social workers and psychologists to act as first responders to mental health crises. Blake noted that the community has been calling for a different approach to mental health crises for decades in Berkeley.
“Berkeley can be a part of the inevitable compassionate and effective efforts that must be made in the field of Mental Health Crisis,” Blake said in an email.
Blake added that crisis intervention is only a “single component” and that further steps must be considered such as respite and recovery strategies.
Warhuus noted that the SCU will be a rolling implementation that is dependent upon staffing levels and vehicle supply change issues.
“We hope/expect something to start up by summer, but we will have to see how it all comes together,” Warhuus said in the email. “While standing this up ASAP is a top priority for the City, there are a variety of things that need to come together and may be delays that happen which are outside of our control.”