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Specialized Care Unit reduces law enforcement involvement in mental health crises

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The city's Specialized Care Unit can receive and request backup from the police department on the off chance that there is a violent situation, but the unit’s main goal is de-escalation.


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JUNE 07, 2023

In an effort to reimagine public safety, Berkeley City Council established Berkeley’s Specialized Care Unit, or SCU, to meet the city’s array of mental health crisis needs, according to a city press release.

The SCU’s goal is to provide an alternative resource for people seeking mental health crisis support but fear contacting law enforcement, according to the press release.

The unit will feature a 24/7 mental health crisis response team that also specializes in substance use crisis response. The response team will be created in partnership with the local nonprofit Bonita House. A meeting to address the community’s questions regarding the unit and further elaborate on the SCU’s responsibilities will be held virtually June 9.

“The role of a police officer has grown and grown, to the point that cities and residents now depend on armed officers to respond to all sorts of calls that absolutely don’t necessitate an armed response,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson.

Though complimentary, the SCU’s work would be separate from the city’s Mobile Crisis team, which partners police and Berkeley Mental Health staff.

At a May 31 city council meeting, staff and members from the Berkeley non-profit Bonita House spoke about the SCU, according to the press release. Bonita House is the nonprofit providing the services of the SCU, and has prior experience providing mental health resources to Berkeley’s most vulnerable populations.

“I strongly support the Specialized Care Unit and ensuring it has the resources and funding necessary to be successful,” said City Council Member Sophie Hahn in an email. “By responding in with a care first model we can create a more positive, lower cost intervention with greater likelihood of success.”

Hahn noted that the SCU can receive and request backup from the police department on the off chance that there is a violent situation, but the unit’s main goal is de-escalation. The unit allows trained mental health first responders to handle these situations, according to Hahn.  She added that this unit will also ensure the Berkeley Police Department will only respond to issues they are trained to address: investigations and solving crimes. Hahn said the SCU is intended to be the city’s primary first responders for mental health crises.

Providing proper support and early interventions will hopefully reduce the impacts of mental health related emergencies and make sure the public feels safe contacting the SCU, Hahn said. The “care first” model, which the SCU follows, creates lower cost and more positive intervention that has a “greater likelihood of success,” according to Hahn.

“Our hope is that all community members will feel safe contacting the SCU to help neighbors in crisis,” Hahn said.

Robinson added that designing alternative response models, such as the Specialized Care Unit, provides public safety for community members while reducing the city’s policing costs.

Contact Sandhya Ganesan at 


JUNE 07, 2023