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What One Alternative to Policing Looks Like

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Left to right: Chayo Lavin, Carly Brannin, Morningstar Gali, Adam Willis, Asantewaa Boykin and Astin Williams with the Anti Police-Terror Project (Courtesy of Asantewaa Boykin )

The idea of defunding and replacing the police has gained traction recently as protests have erupted across the country following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. But this isn’t a new idea: In January, the Sacramento chapter of the Anti Police-Terror Project started a program called “Mental Health First” to provide trauma-informed, community-based and peer-driven intervention to respond to people in crisis without the police.

The program is made up of a few dozen volunteers in Sacramento who do street outreach, answer calls, texts and social media requests to respond to crises all night on the weekends.

To find out how that program works and what they’ve learned so far, The Bay’s Devin Katayama spoke with Niki Jones, a peer crisis counselor and volunteer coordinator with “Mental Health First,” and Asantewaa Boykin, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project.

If you or someone you know needs a non-police response to a mental health crisis in Sacramento, you can reach “Mental Health First” at 916-670-4062 on Friday through Sunday between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How “Mental Health First” Started

Boykin: Long before we decided to make, or even embark upon, making “Mental Health First” an official thing, there was just this thing that existed in our community where we just knew we took care of each other, right? So when one of our comrades was feeling suicidal or was manic or depressed and not getting out of the bed, our initial response was, “How do we support them through this?” and not “How do we get them on a 5150 hold?”

Especially as more and more incidences of police murder happen and there was this common theme: person was in the midst of a mental health crisis, right? Or maybe they were high on something, right? And the police weren’t equipped, nor had the desire to deal with that in a way that was centered around care. And, subsequently, that person ended up dead or injured. Because the goal of the Anti Police-Terror Project is to essentially dismantle oppressive systems, we understood that this is a place that we needed to intervene, and we were already doing it.

How It’s Different From Dialing 911

Boykin: Our goal is to get you from where you are to your next step. And not to tell you what that step is, but to help you determine what that step is. We actually call it self-determined crisis management. Because it’s not our place to tell someone what they need to do, but rather just to listen and kind of help them get through the fog that they’re in, and determine what that next step is for themselves.

We just kind of go out and meet folks where they’re at. We give a lot of survival supplies to unhoused folks. We have access to safe use supplies. We also have access to Narcan that we just make available to folks that are just out there. … And [it’s] not just [about] waiting until someone’s in crisis, or waiting until someone’s non-responsive and needing Narcan, but to go out and build [relationships] with those people so they know it’s us when they see us coming. And they know that if someone calls “Mental Health First,” that help is coming and not handcuffs.

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What It’s like to Volunteer

Jones: It can look like someone who has been recently in a family violence situation that needs to process and discuss and get some time away. … There have been times when folks are screaming or hollering in the street and a community member calls. There have been times when people want to end their life, and they call or their loved ones call, and we talk through how reasonable that might feel, but how real and valuable people’s lives are.

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And so, once again, it’s this life affirmation that is an intervention that the police do not use in their day-to-day workings, and particularly in their interactions with people experiencing mental health crisis or domestic violence or using drugs.

We know that we’re not an island, and what we are is a bridge to a larger community of care, a system of care. We’re there to provide client-centered interventions, all the way from a bottle of water and snacks, to transportation to the emergency department or the mental health urgent care.

It can feel very overwhelming. It can feel scary to hold that phone, to be perfectly honest, when you know what might come your way. But, you know, I let folks know that: Think about what’s happening right now. Think about who’s gonna get that call if you don’t. And think about how much more qualified you are to hold your community member than these armed and geared up officers of the law.

What Have They Learned So Far?

Boykin: That it’s needed, especially right now in today’s climate, when folks are thinking about: Well, what else? If not for police, then who? If not handcuffs, then what? If not forced hospitalization, then what?

What I’ve learned is that we can do whatever we decide to, and that it really is people power that moves, its people power that keeps us safe. And that if we’re brave enough to dream, we can build something different.

Read the full transcript here. 

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