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Oakland Takes First Steps Toward Directing Some 911 Calls To Community Responders

It will be months before the pilot program is implemented in part of East Oakland, but activists say it’s a move in the right direction.

Oakland City Hall(Photo via Getty Images)

The Oakland City Council in California is expected to finalize approval today for a pilot program that would replace police with trained civilian responders for a host of 911 calls that often involve people struggling with mental health issues and homelessness. 

The year-long pilot called MACRO—Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland—is still in its infancy. It is expected to take months before being implemented in an area in East Oakland, but activists say the pilot is a major step toward eliminating law enforcement responses to 911 calls that risk escalation into police shootings of people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises. 

“We don’t want [police] involved in these calls because we’re sick of the death count,” said Cathy Leonard, a steering committee member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, which has been pushing the city for a MACRO-like program since 2019. “We need resident-centered responses.” 

Other mental health-oriented emergency response programs already operate in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, but those programs are staffed by licensed clinicians who respond in tandem with police. MACRO will function as a police-free program within the Oakland Fire Department. It will be staffed by two-person teams of emergency medical technicians and trained community members who advocates say are more equipped to respond to 911 calls about matters like public urination, erratic behavior, and welfare checks. The final structure of the program remains unclear, as the fire department and stakeholders hash out the details over the coming months.

Because the city of Oakland faces a pandemic-fueled budget crisis, the $1.85 million in MACRO funding is far smaller than the original vision, which was outlined in a report by the Urban Strategies Council and called for $3.09 million to employ 24 people. But City Council members say this new pilot is an important part of Oakland’s goal of reducing the over $300 million police department budget by 50 percent. 

“The intent and the goal is that there be sort of three phases of the program, and within three years that about 20 percent of the low-level, nonviolent 911 calls would receive this response,” Nikki Fortunato Bas, the City Council president, said in an interview. 

MACRO is inspired by Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, a long-standing emergency response service that saves the city an average of $8.5 million annually and diverts an estimated 5 to 8 percent of 911 calls away from police. The Oakland City Council commissioned a report in 2019 to examine the feasibility and implementation of a CAHOOTS-like program locally, forming the foundation for MACRO. 

According to one national study, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police interaction. Oakland’s pilot program follows several fatal police shootings of people experiencing mental health crises in the Bay Area, including Joshua Pawlik in 2018 and Miles Hall in 2019. Last summer’s racial justice protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis also added to the momentum to create the program. 

Oakland community members have long said that police are ill-equipped to deal with people in mental and emotional crisis, not in small part because the primary response for law enforcement is to put someone in a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold known as a 5150. Alameda County has the highest rate in the state for police use of 5150s, despite the fact that 75 percent of those held did not need acute psychiatric care. Meanwhile, people in the midst of a mental health crisis that do not qualify for an involuntary hold “receive essentially no services,” according to the county’s behavioral health care service.

“I think the worst way to provide mental health care is with an ambulance and a 911 call because we can really only be with somebody for five minutes and then they get taken to the emergency room,” said Zac Unger, who is union president for Oakland firefighters and often provides emergency medical care. “The hope is that there is somebody who actually has the resources and the skills to connect people in crisis with more long term resources.” 

Loren Taylor, an Oakland City Council member, said MACRO is meant to respond to a range of community needs, beyond people experiencing mental health crises. He cited family disputes where relatives are seeking intervention and de-escalation. “They don’t want the person arrested. They don’t want them to be part of the criminal justice system,” said Taylor, who was co-chairperson of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety task force. “The only resource they know or they have is to call the cops right now.” 

The pilot received unanimous support from the City Council yet it still faces uncertainties surrounding its bureaucratic structure and relationship with the police. The program was originally designed to be implemented by a nonprofit, but during a contentious City Council process, the nonprofits rescinded their bids and the council ultimately reversed course to place MACRO within the fire department.

According to David Harris, CEO of the Urban Strategies Council, which authored the initial MACRO report, the switch from a nonprofit to the fire department will help ensure that the program is sustainable and not “dumped” at a later stage. But the move adds a layer of bureaucracy and liability concerns that threaten to make implementing the pilot more complex. Already, the fire department indicated in a March memo that MACRO might not operate around the clock, which was a key component of the program. 

Another outstanding issue is exactly how many of the over 240,000 annual 911 calls to the police will be transferred to MACRO responders once the program is running or expanded. One study of 911 calls from eight cities found that up to 38 percent of the calls can be handled by community response teams. But a report commissioned by the city identified only 7.5 percent of local 911 calls eligible for a non-police response and many of those calls, including traffic accidents, likely will not fall under MACRO’s jurisdiction. 

The Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), a local activist group working to abolish the Oakland Police, said MACRO is an important step toward its goal, but contend that the service needs to also be accessible through a non-911 number. “Large swaths of our community don’t call the police to begin with,” said Cat Brooks, one of the group’s founders. “So the fact that you can only access MACRO through 911 is a problem.” APTP has been running a non-police response service in Oakland since August, meeting the pent-up demand for an alternative to police with a dedicated phone line and access through social media channels. “Our phones ring off the hook from the time we open to the time that we close,” said Brooks.