Community support in Oakland for non-police responses to mental health calls

A task force created by the city of Oakland following the death of George Floyd and calls to defund Oakland police issued a series of draft recommendations, including one to make immediate investments in a non-police response to mental health calls, that drew support Wednesday from a coalition of groups critical of the Police Department.

On a Zoom call, the Defund Oakland Police Coalition said it disagrees with only six of the 114 recommendations put forward by the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

Among other things, Cat Brooks, a vocal critic of Oakland police, called the recommendations "doable."

"I am overjoyed by what we got," said Brooks, who is the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and the executive director of the Justice Teams Network, which connects groups looking for ways to prevent and respond to state violence.

Following the release earlier this month of the recommendations, the coalition on Wednesday released their reactions in a report, which can be found here.

One of the task force recommendations the coalition strongly supports is the proposed funding for a non-police response to mental health calls.

Citing work by The Marshall Project, James Burch, policy director at the Anti Police-Terror Project and a member of the public safety task force, said as many as 50 percent of everyone killed by law enforcement was having a mental health crisis and many of those are Black and brown people.

"We need experts to approach mental health crises with care and compassion, not a badge and a gun," Burch said.

Among the other recommendations the coalition strongly supports is a public health response to substance abuse and the expansion and funding for existing harm reduction services.

The coalition also strongly supports the creation of a mobile street outreach team to help homeless people and the dissolution of the Police Department's Homeless Outreach Unit.

Also, the task force recommends having the Oakland Department of Transportation rather than police make traffic stops, which the coalition supports.

"We need to make the shift and we need to make it now," Burch said of the effort to defund the police.

"This campaign (to defund Oakland police) was started out of a desperate desire to save lives," Brooks said, following the deaths of people at the hands of Oakland police.

George Floyd's death in Minneapolis added fuel to that campaign and sparked widespread acknowledgment of and protests about racism in the U.S.

"The only rational way forward is to actively divest from policing and invest in the programs and services that are proven to support communities and increase safety," said Saabir Lockett of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. He said a shift in the culture at the Police Department "is not what is required."

Ivan Garcia, a youth on the task force, said its most helpful draft recommendations involve mental health and youth homelessness. "We are building an Oakland we will literally inherit," he said of himself and other youth.

The community can provide their input on the draft recommendations between March 1 and 12. A listening session is scheduled for March 9. The City Council is scheduled to consider the draft recommendations on April 1 and final recommendations are due to the City Council on April 20.

More information about the task force, and the full list of the draft recommendations, can be found here.