ONE MORNING this spring, Cat Brooks got a call letting her know that Oakland police were swarming a crashed car on East 25 th Street. The driver of the silver hatchback was unresponsive, and his stereo had been blasting R&B for an hour before a neighbor, worried the man might need an ambulance, called 911.
The neighbor hadn’t seen the gun in his lap, but the cops who arrived did. At least 16 police officers soon took over the block and surrounded Lavel Jones, a father of four, who remained in the driver’s seat, appearing to pass in and out of consciousness.
Brooks rushed to the scene. An antiracist activist and former mayoral candidate, in 2012 Brooks co-founded the Anti Police-Terror Project, dedicated to fighting police brutality targeting Black, brown, and poor people. In 2020, the community group had launched a hotline in Oakland that people could call during emergencies that they worried cops might make worse. The hotline, which serves as an alternative to 911, is now dispatching volunteer medics, mental health specialists, and security specialists to psychiatric, substance use, or interpersonal violence emergencies. Though nascent, Mental Health First is the kind of homegrown alternative to police intervention that more people in the United States began seriously considering after a Minneapolis police officer responding to a minor complaint murdered George Floyd. With city governments from Denver to New York launching programs that dispatch fewer cops and more counselors and health care workers, aptp holds bimonthly calls with community groups and local officials pursuing similar initiatives across the country.
Brooks, who knew from experience that an impasse like the one on East 25 th Street could turn deadly, rushed to get there. Just six years earlier, a rookie Oakland police officer shot and killed a man named Demouria Hogg, who similarly was passed out in a crashed car with a gun in the passenger seat. The shooting hit Brooks close to home: Her daughter and Hogg’s were best friends. “Oh my god,” Brooks thought when she got the call this spring, “this is like Demouria all over again.”
APTP never planned to launch something like Mental Health First. But as the organization’s reputation grew alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and Oakland residents facing emergencies started to call them instead of the police, Brooks says that “we looked at each other and went, ‘Well, we better come up with an actual model. Because if we’re going to tell people not to call the police, we goddamn well better have an alternative.’”
On that morning of May 11, Carina Lieu was looking for just such an option. Lieu, who lived on East 25 th , had already called 911. But once the cops took over the block and started drawing their guns, the scale of the response filled her with anxiety. “I didn’t want this man to die because I called the police,” Lieu says. “I just thought he needed medical attention.”
Then she remembered aptp, which she’d heard about through her city job running youth leadership programs. She texted colleagues, asking if they could alert the organizers.
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