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Oakland crisis center opens to handle mental emergencies without police help

Oakland crisis center opens to handle mental emergencies without police
Oakland crisis center opens to handle mental emergencies without police 03:10

OAKLAND -- A new community center dedicated to serving people in crisis without help from the police opened in west Oakland Saturday morning. 

While many demand more police to fight the gun violence gripping the city of Oakland another group sees the cops as the problem. The Anti Police-Terror Project, APTP, has led the call for defunding law enforcement and diverting half the money given to OPD toward mental health and wellness services. A lot of people feel that's unrealistic but, on Saturday, the effort became very real indeed.

"We're making a promise to this community with the opening of these doors," said APTP co-founder Cat Brooks as she announced the opening of "The People's House." The new brick-and-mortar community center will offer health and wellness services, from massage and herbal medicines to psychological counseling from volunteer mental health professionals.

"I really see it as a healing center, right?" Brooks said.  "A balm in a community that has been devastated by everything from gentrification to environmental pollution to poverty to gun violence."

The building will also be home to Mental Health First, a volunteer team that responds to mental health crises without police being notified.  Coordinator Rebecca Ruiz says they can de-escalate a tense situation in ways police cannot.

"So, to me, that's completely different than the police who are coming into the situation, sometimes brutalizing people, trying to incarcerate them, not listening to what they're going through," she said.

Even though Mental Health First is not part of the 9-1-1 system and must be called directly, Dr. Daniela Kantorova says she was kept busy Friday night going from call to call from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m.

"We get calls directly from people in crisis but also from their family members or neighbors or even people in the street," Dr. Kantorova said. "So, we see that as a success because people are calling us and not the police."

"For a lot of our folks," Brooks said, "it doesn't matter what is happening in front of them or how many times you assure them that calling 9-1-1 isn't going to result in a badge and a gun. They're never going to dial that number because the experiences that they've had have taught them that it's dangerous to do so, even when they're in danger."

The Anti Police-Terror Project opened the center without any help from the city and, in fact, has been largely at odds with local government. That may be changing as the new mayor, Sheng Thao, attended the event and spoke to the crowd, something they would not have expected -- or even welcomed -- from the previous mayor.

"I am more than happy to talk with ATPT and Mental Health First to see how we can partner and looking forward to those dialogues," Thao said.

The ATPT says they have been operating in Oakland for more than 10 years now.  They say the opening of The People's House is a promise that they are here to stay.

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