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By Joe Livernois
Alameda County is moving full steam to establish mobile crisis response teams similar to those proposed by Voices of Monterey Bay.
In fact, two different programs are being developed in the East Bay county, including a crisis response program initiated by the county’s Behavioral Health department, and a pilot program in the planning stages designed for specific neighborhoods in the city of Oakland.
Alameda County’s program is called CATT, an acronym for Community Assessment Treatment and Transport Team. Oakland’s is known as MACRO, short for Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland.
Both are patterned off a successful mobile crisis response program that has been operating in Eugene, Ore., for the past three decades. Like the Eugene program, called CAHOOTS, the Alameda County teams are meant to send mental health specialists and/or emergency medical technicians to non-violent emergency calls instead of police officers.
Voices of Monterey Bay earlier this month called on Monterey County officials to initiate a program that would provide crisis response teams across the entire county 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In a world of acronyms, Voices calls its proposal REACT, an acronym for Response & Emergency Assistance Crisis Team.
At the moment, REACT is the only tangible proposal on the table in Monterey County. But the development of mobile crisis teams as an alternative to certain emergency calls now handled by police officers has been discussed in earnest by Monterey County residents and officials in recent months.
Community groups like Pause the Calls in Seaside and Community Before Cops in Marina have been discussing mobile crisis response teams for their cities. And the Mayors Select Committee, a group of Monterey County mayors that gathers monthly to discuss issues of mutual concern, recently conducted a Zoom call with Ben Climer, a CAHOOTS representative, about that program.
In advancing REACT, Voices of Monterey Bay is checking in with communities that have established mobile crisis units or that are preparing to launch mobile teams.
Representatives from Alameda County’s behavioral health department launched CATT in late July, calling it “the first of its kind in Alameda County and much of the state.”
Teams from the Community Assessment and Transport Teams include an emergency medical technician and a licensed behavioral health clinician, and they patrol San Leandro, Hayward and Oakland. Scraping together the plans and the financing for that program has taken more than three years. The mobile crisis teams for CATT are staffed with EMTs and mental health specialists.
The program is meant to ensure that mental-health services are provided “as the first response to people in crisis,” said Dr. Karl Sporer, the medical director for that county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency. “To get here, we had to invent the mental health first responder and that’s a game-changer.” He said CATT teams can provide medical and mental health assessment, management, transportation and referrals to people who are “presenting” with mental-health emergencies.
The county’s behavioral health department, which specializes in administering mental health services, is paying for the program with funds raised in a sales tax measure residents of Alameda County approved in 2004 specifically to provide healthcare to vulnerable residents. It is also using money it receives from the state via the Mental Health Services Act. Other partners in CATT include the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, and Falck, the 911 ambulance provider.
Alameda County is contracting its CATT service to a private nonprofit mental health agency called Bonita House.
The CATT program launched with three teams on the streets daily between 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., with a goal of expanding to 12 teams if the program proves successful. Stephanie Lewis, a crisis response manager for Alameda County, said she expects that three more teams will be in operation in a couple of weeks, and that the service will be expanded to Fremont.
Guillermo Cespedes, the chief of violence prevention for the city of Oakland, said he is a “big fan” of his city’s MACRO program but he also cautions that it’s too early to say whether mobile crisis response programs will meet community expectations.
The city is still collecting the baseline data necessary to determine whether MACRO is successful as a pilot program. “I’m being cautious,” Cespedes said. “MACRO needs to be piloted. My experience is that when social programs are termed successful before they start, they are destined to fail.”
In fact, Cespedes counseled Voices that REACT ought to launch first as a pilot in certain communities. And he said that community leaders should have a clear idea about what they are trying to accomplish with mobile crisis teams. For instance, is mobile crisis intended to better serve people in need, or is it meant to simply reallocate resources away from police?
Cespedes, who calls himself a social worker, is a veteran violence-prevention specialist who has spent more than 42 years in places like Los Angeles, Honduras and El Salvador. The city of Oakland created the position of Chief of Violence Prevention in 2017, and Cespedes was recruited from Central America to take the position last year.
The MACRO program is the result of a grassroots movement among community leaders in Oakland in response to violence and high-profile police shootings in the city. The Oakland City Council spent $40,000 last year to explore a CAHOOTS-like model in Oakland, hiring a consultant to meet with experts and local groups. Based on that report, the City Council in June agreed to spend $1.8 million to launch MACRO in several key Oakland neighborhoods.
Once it’s up and running, MACRO would employ a team of emergency medical technicians and counselors that will respond to nonviolent calls in those neighborhoods. The teams will provide medical assessments, will de-escalate and support people who are in a mental health crisis and will offer connections to care facilities. The team will also provide followup support.
Community expectations are high, and Cespedes said that launching MACRO is like “building a plane while it’s up in the air.”
He said his experience — and the reason he is cautious about expectations in the community — is that efforts to “replace police functions with social programs” are not usually given adequate time or full resources to succeed. If expectations are not met immediately, social programs are dismissed as ineffective or a failure, reputations that tend to dog programs that aren’t given a full chance to succeed. “We need to be prudent and cautious with MACRO, because we have to get it right,” Cespedes said.
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