Alameda County-based mental health care provider Bonita House. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Editor’s note: A version of this story was first published on Aug. 17. It has been updated to note the Specialized Care Unit’s expanded hours.

The Specialized Care Unit, Berkeley’s mobile crisis team, has expanded its hours and will now take calls from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.

When the SCU first began taking calls Sept. 5 their schedule was limited to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. The unit aims to eventually run all day, every day.

“The SCU will do their best to pick up every phone call, but sometimes the call may go to voicemail,” according to an email Friday from the city’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department. “If the caller is able, please leave a voicemail and the SCU will return the call as soon as possible during operating hours.”

Bonita House — the mental health care organization running the $4.5 million two-year pilot program — has hired five SCU team members and is still recruiting, said Samantha Russell, the nonprofit’s director of crisis services, during a town hall-style Zoom meeting on Aug. 16.

When fully staffed, the SCU will have rotating teams of three workers each — a behavioral health technician, a peer support specialist and an EMT — working around the clock to take crisis calls that previously would have gone to city police.

At first, the SCU will only be responding to calls on a limited basis during daytime hours, Russell said, but as more staff and vehicles become available, they aim to be available all day, every day.

The city has purchased the vans that the SCU teams will use, but they are not yet ready for deployment, Russell said. For the first weeks or months that the SCU operates, they will use rented vans. The rented vans do not have wheelchair ramps, but the permanent ones will.

A sticking point for many proponents of the SCU was taking calls for mental health services or substance crises out of the police department’s dispatch center. The SCU has a dedicated 10-digit phone number, 510-948-0075, Russell said.

“We will be checking voicemails every day in the mornings, but we will not be responding,” Russell said. “So currently, if you have a psychiatric emergency, it’s still 911.”

Russell said people should call if they or people they know are “experiencing symptoms of a mental health, behavioral crisis” such as feeling anxious, helpless, socially withdrawn or unable to calm down, or struggling with substance use or abuse. The SCU can also handle wellness checks and reports of people thinking about harming themselves or others.

Of the more than 60,000 calls for service that the Berkeley Police Department responds to each year, between 2,500 and 3,000 are for welfare checks alone, according to data in the department’s transparency hub.

But as for conventional medical emergencies, the SCU can provide only “very basic medical care,” Russell said. “Certain calls may still require a 911 response if you have a major medical emergency if there is other things going on.”

The idea for the unit first arose in June 2020, immediately after the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer. The intention was to shift “non-criminal” calls for service from city police to a “network of crisis responders,” according to a City Council item.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...