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Asantewaa Boykin, center, is the program director of MH First. Photo submitted by MH First.

New mental health emergency response system provides alternative to 911

on October 12, 2020

On June 2, 2019, police officers killed Taun Hall’s son. 

The 23-year-old Miles Hall was a self-taught musician who enjoyed playing guitar and piano. His mother describes him as an artistic young man who loved spending time with his younger sister Alexis.

“They considered each other best friends,” Hall said.

Miles Hall with his sister Alexis Hall
Miles Hall with his sister Alexis Hall. Photo courtesy Taun Hall.

Miles Hall was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition with symptoms that can include hallucinations, delusions, mania and depression. 

That day, Miles was having a schizoaffective episode at the family’s home in Walnut Creek, CA, a city a few miles east of Oakland.  

First Miles’ grandmother, and then Taun Hall herself, called 911. Hall wanted to get her son to a hospital where he could receive treatment. She felt her only option was to call the police.

But when the Walnut Creek police officers arrived, the situation escalated quickly.

“[The police officers] were shouting at him and, you know, doing commands,” Hall said. “Someone who is mentally impaired doesn’t respond, doesn’t understand, because they’re not in the same frame of mind.”

Miles Hall ran towards the officers, who first shot him with ‘less-lethal’ ammunition called bean bag rounds. When he continued running, two officers shot him with their handguns. Miles Hall was transported to John Muir Hospital, where he died from his injuries.

Hall says that Miles’ death was a symptom of deep flaws in the mental healthcare response system. 

“It’s almost impossible to get your loved one help, especially when they don’t understand they’re sick,” Hall explained.

In Oakland and other cities across the Bay Area, police officers often respond to the scene when a 911 call comes in for a mental health emergency. Steven Taylor, Errol Chang, and Yanira Serrano-Garcia are recent examples of people killed by law enforcement during a mental health crisis in the Bay Area.

According to Hall, armed police officers are not the right people to respond when a person is going through a mental health crisis.

“I would like to see something else besides the police. People who are trained to respond to mental health crises,” Hall said. “Because that would have saved Miles.”

Since Miles’ death, Hall has joined a chorus of advocates in California calling for a fundamental change in the mental health crisis response system. During the 2020 legislative session, a coalition of advocates supported the CRISES Act. The state-level bill would have established a pilot program to fund community-based emergency responder organizations, creating alternatives to police response to mental health emergencies across CA.

Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill on Sept. 30, 2020. 

In a statement, Newsom objected to having the Office of Emergency Services become the pilot program’s administrator, as laid out in the bill. But Newsom said that “the underlying goal of this legislation is important.” 

Newsom explained that during the next legislative session, his administration would work on “an implementable solution.” 

In the meantime, some Oakland advocates aren’t waiting on Governor Newsom. They’ve created their own emergency response system.

Mental Health First Oakland Is An Alternative to 911

Daniela Kantorová’s Saturdays start at 2 a.m. She dresses casually to take emergency calls from her home in Oakland.

“I wouldn’t be able to wear pajamas though,” she said with a laugh. “Because I think that would just put me right back to sleep.”

Kantorová, a licensed psychologist and clinical faculty at The Wright Institute, is the Coordinator for Mental Health First Oakland (MH First Oakland). For the past six weeks, Kantorová and a team of volunteers have been accepting calls on MH First’s new emergency response hotline.

MH First Oakland, a project of the advocacy organization Anti Police Terror Project (APTP), provides non-police response to crises. The new program offers to help with psychiatric emergencies, substance abuse support, domestic violence and more.

On Aug. 28, 2020, MH First Oakland opened their toll-free hotline for the first time. The line is now active 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Anyone in the city of Oakland who is looking for a non-911 response to a mental health crisis can call the MH First hotline at 510-999-9641. You can also direct message the team on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

In light of the pandemic, MH First Oakland is currently only offering remote support. But the organization is developing COVID-safe procedures and hopes to begin dispatching their volunteers for in-person support soon.

Since the launch, Kantorová says MH First Oakland has received 45 calls, including requests that came in through social media direct messages.

MH First Oakland says all of their volunteers go through an eight-hour training and an onboarding shift before they begin fielding calls themselves. The program is modeled after MH First Sacramento, which the APTP opened in January 2020.

MH First Says 911 Doesn’t Work For Mental Health

The City of Oakland has recognized the demand for non-police mental health crisis response. It’s developing a program called Mobile Assistance Community Response of Oakland (MACRO), which is modeled after a well-established program in Eugene, Oregon.

The MACRO pilot program is yet to launch, and is a separate program from MH First Oakland. One major difference between the two programs: MACRO will run through Oakland’s 911 system. So Oaklanders who avoid calling 911 for fear of a potential police response will not be able to access MACRO’s services. 

Even for Oakland residents who would welcome a police dispatch, the 911 system is not functioning effectively, according to a 2019-2020 Alameda County Grand Jury Final Report.

The report concluded: “Oakland’s underfunded and understaffed 9-1-1 communications center cannot manage the volume of emergency and non-emergency calls it receives, placing the public’s safety at risk.”

MH First does not dispatch through 911, it has its own phone line.

Asantewaa Boykin, Co-founder of APTP and Program Director of MH First, believes that it’s essential for mental health crisis hotlines to be seperate from the 911 system. 

“I think that we [as Black people] do absolutely everything we can before we call 911… Because there’s just an acute understanding in the back of our heads that if [the police] show up, that could also mean you lose someone you love,” Boykin said.

MH First is a Response to Police Violence Against People of Color and People Living with Mental Illnesses

Nearly one in four people fatally shot by the police in America have a mental illness, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Twenty-four percent of people fatally shot by police are Black, even though Black people make up about 13% of the US population.

“Our society has done an incredible job of stigmatizing and demonizing people going through mental health crises. And when you intersect that with race, that proves to be a deadly combination,” said Cat Brooks, Co-founder of APTP.

“The way that we reduce the number of lives that police steal from our communities is by reducing the number of interactions that our communities have with law enforcement,” Brooks said.

Peggy Rahman, President of the Alameda County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Alameda County), believes police officers have important roles to play in our community. But we should not ask them to take on the role of responding to mental health crises, she says.

A family member of Rahman’s had schizoaffective disorder. Rahman says she has called 911 over 30 times for mental health emergencies.

“When it gets to [the point of calling the police], we’ve tried everything else,” Rahman said. “Usually, it’s almost too late. Because the last thing in the world we want to do is call the police.” 

“Police are not social workers,” Rahman said. “They didn’t sign up to go out on mental health crisis calls and to get services for people. That’s not what they’re trained to do.”

The Future of Emergency Response

Hall fondly remembers a trip her family took to Mexico in 2017. She spent days on the beach with Miles, and the pair laughed together as they tried on hats at a local shop. “It was just family time,” she said. “That’s so precious and carefree.”

The Hall Family on vacation in Mexico. Left to right: Tamika Hall, Taun Hall, Miles Hall, and Donna Hall Barry. Submitted by Taun Hall.
The Hall Family on vacation in Mexico. Left to right: Tamika Hall, Taun Hall, Miles Hall, and Donna Hall Barry.
Photo courtesy Taun Hall.

Hall no longer gets to have those little moments with her son. She’s determined to make sure no other mother has to go through the same experience.

After Miles’ death, the Hall family founded the Miles Hall Foundation. The foundation is advocating for a mental health response team in Walnut Creek that would be staffed with mental health professionals and could respond to mental health crises 24/7. It would be a separate program from MH First.

In addition to local advocacy, a long term goal of the foundation is to get legislation passed in Miles’ name that would reform mental health crisis response across the state.

Hall believes it’s urgent to bring non-police emergency response to communities across California. She worries that as long as police officers are responding to mental health crises, people living with mental illness will be in danger. 

“Something like this happened in Walnut Creek, in an affluent, white, neighborhood,” she said. “It can happen anywhere.”

Featured photo: Asantewaa Boykin, center, is the program director of MH First. Photo courtesy MH First.

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