Alameda votes to de-prioritize police for mental health calls

Another Bay Area city took steps Tuesday to reimagine how police respond to mental heath crisis calls. The City of Alameda said it wants to deprioritize police officers in favor of medics and mental health professionals.

Two days before police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, police in Alameda arrested Mali Watkins for exercising in the street.

"I do this every day... please let me go," said 45-year-old Watkins, who can be seen and heard on body camera footage. "I was just dancing."

Fourteen months later, Alameda City Council voted to limit its police department's response to mental health emergencies and launch a pilot program for non-criminal and non-violent calls.

"Let's say somebody calls because they saw someone dancing in the street or walking in the street," said Alameda Vice Mayor Malia Vella during Tuesday's meeting. "The fire department could work with our chief of police and our dispatch to make sure those calls are directed to this pilot unit."

The pilot unit will be from Alameda's Fire Department. An un-uniformed firefighter paramedic and EMT would respond to the call in an unmarked car. Later, a mental health or social worker would help the person with follow-up services.

"They will not be showing up in firefighter gear, there are no lights. The whole idea is to de-escalate," said Alameda Councilmember John Knox White, who voted in favor of the pilot.

"Armed police officers are not needed in every call that comes into the city for service. Every time we call a police officer to look into someone who might just be acting a little erratically, that's a time when that officer is not doing traffic stops or putting time into criminal investigations," said Knox White.

Watkins, who lives in Alameda, said he needs to see improvement before reacting to policy change. "Until they really start making strides to knock down that thing we call white supremacy, they can call it mental health, they can call it this, they can call it that."

Watkins also said he's still dealing with the physical repercussions of his arrest. "I have teeth falling out of my face, and I have to get my entire mouth replaced because of what happened last year."

Civil rights attorney John Burris is representing Watkins in a lawsuit against Alameda. He said most of his cases are a result of an inappropriate police response to a mental health emergency.

"To the extent the city is considering a private entity, I think that's a very positive step and I'm hopeful that some form of that is adopted so you can minimize this contact that the police have," said Burris.

Alameda's trial program is expected launch at the end of the year.
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