Plan to replace Oakland police in mental health calls stalls

A pilot program in Oakland to dispatch counselors and paramedics to mental health crises, instead of armed law enforcement officers, that was scheduled to start in January is having trouble getting off the ground.

The Oakland City Council in June voted to set aside $1.85 million to fund the program amid protests against police brutality that followed the killing of George Floyd. But eight months later, the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program is in disarray after two community-based organizations that were vying for the contract bowed out this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday.

Earlier this month, a battle flared up over which nonprofit would receive taxpayer funds to handle duties that have long fallen on sworn police officers.

The city’s Department of Violence Prevention spent months picking a contractor. A panel of city staff and community members with expertise in behavioral health rated five applicants and recommended the one with the highest score: Bay Area Community Services, a nonprofit that has served Oakland since 1953.

But the council’s Public Safety Committee backed the runner up — Hayward-based Alliance for Community Wellness, also known as La Familia Counseling Service. Their decision came after several residents who spoke during the council's meeting last week criticized Bay Area Community Services for what they said was a lack of strong community ties.

In a Feb. 17 letter to the council that served as a notice of withdrawal, Bay Area Community Services CEO Jamie Almanza addressed the criticisms against her organization.

"I find it my duty to respond to the stated opinions of individuals who may not know who BACS is, where we come from, where we are, and who we serve out of respect for our team who found last week’s meeting disrespectful, full of mistruth, and a false representation of true community work," Almanza wrote.

That same night, the council received a second withdrawal letter from Alliance for Community Wellness CEO Aaron Ortiz. "After reflecting and discussing this contract with our stakeholders, La Familia has made the decision to withdraw our application to operate Oakland’s MACRO program," Ortiz wrote.

Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas and Guillermo Cespedes, chief of the Department of Violence Prevention, said they would consider various options to run the new program at the council’s March 2 meeting.

They could even bring the program in-house and assign employees to run it, Bas said in an email to the Chronicle.

"Our goal is to create the best program to serve Oaklanders," Bas wrote.