A defund the police rally in Chicago in June, 2020. (Brian Cassella/TNS)

In March, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to set up a non-police emergency response unit within the Oakland Fire Department. This marks the first major step toward implementing an in-house, non-police response to low-level, non-violent 911 calls and calls related to mental health crises. The program, which is called Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (or “MACRO”), would create a unit of first responders within the Fire Department who are specially trained in managing mental health crises and other non-violent disputes—a move toward mitigating police brutality in Oakland. The council expects to see the one-year MACRO pilot program roll out in the next several months, according to Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan. The pilot program would begin in East Oakland and in time expand to Fruitvale and West Oakland, with the goal of eventually becoming a city-wide, permanent program. Kaplan said that the Council decided to select priority zones based on “need and magnitude of these types of calls.” 

The Oakland Fire Department will use their existing 911 dispatch system to run the MACRO program. When a 911 call is made that falls within MACRO’s domain, two-person teams made up of medical technicians and community outreach workers will be dispatched by the Fire Department. The two-person teams will respond to all calls for mental health crisis and other non-violent incidents, such as public intoxication. The teams will be available to respond to calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Alternative policing models typically rely on licensed clinicians co-responding with police. Vice Mayor Kaplan said that it’s still “theoretically possible” that law enforcement will be called in by MACRO teams on a case-by-case basis. 

The Vice Mayor emphasized the need for responders to receive training from agencies in other cities that have run similar programs, as well as local community-based organizations in Oakland with expertise in racial justice and community needs.

The history of MACRO 

The road to instituting a non-police crisis response program at the Council has been a long one, rooted in community activism around police violence in Oakland and the Bay Area. Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police Terror Project (APTP), situates the beginnings of programs like MACRO in street activism led by the group beginning in 2015, during a gigantic spike in police shootings of Black men and women in Oakland. 

“Upwards of 50 percent of people that are murdered by law enforcement are in the middle of a mental health crisis,” said Brooks, who is the co-creator of Mental Health First—a non-911 emergency hotline staffed by volunteers that Oaklanders can call when they see someone in the midst of a mental health crisis. “The data makes it very clear that the intersection of mental health crisis, Black and brown bodies, and law enforcement is a deadly cocktail…Community is best to respond to these kinds of crises.”

Oakland isn’t the first city to implement an in-house crisis response team as an alternative to policing. In 1989, the city of Eugene, Oregon, developed a community-based public safety response team called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). The program, which diverts five to eight percent of phone calls from police a year, sends out two-person teams to “provide mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.” 

In 2020, the City of Portland, Oregon, voted to fund Portland Street Response, a similar program that dispatches non-police first responders to crises amongst people experiencing homelessness.

It has been over a year since the Oakland City Council voted to include $40,000 in its 2019-2020 budget for a report on the “feasibility and implementation of a CAHOOTS-like model program in Oakland.” Last June, Council voted to set aside $1.85 million in funding for the city’s Department of Violence Prevention, which funds and trains community-led intervention strategies, to “identify qualified community-based organization(s)” to carry out MACRO. 

The contracting process to find such an organization was rocky and complicated. The Department of Violence Prevention experienced delays in creating a job description. Once candidates were selected, Council Members, the City Administrator, and the City Attorney quarreled over the decision to send the contract to Bay Area Community Services (BACS) or La Familia. In the fallout, both groups dropped the contract. 

The vacancy created the opportunity to place the program in-house in the Oakland Fire Department, something several Council Members had long been advocating for, including Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan. At the March Council meeting, over 40 community members spoke in favor of housing the program within the Fire Department.

“They have a dispatch system and they already operate on a 24/7 basis,” said Kaplan. Embedding MACRO within the Fire Department would allow them to simultaneously handle medical calls, which they already do, and the dispatch of mental health calls, low-level non-violent incidents, and other sorts of community crisis response, she explains. 

Placing the MACRO program in the Oakland Fire Department also means that those community responder jobs will be unionized, something that community and labor advocates stressed is an essential part of the program’s success. 

“It’s getting more and more expensive and more and more impossible for Black and brown people to remain in the city of Oakland,” Brooks said. “Union jobs are living wage jobs, and we want more BIPOC people, particularly Black people, to have access to those jobs.”

The need for a community-based response 

In order for MACRO to be successful in Oakland, community advocates emphasized the need for the pilot program to be participant driven and centered. 

James Burch, Policy Director for the APTP, highlighted the importance of hiring BIPOC Oaklanders to these community responder positions. 

“It needs to be made sure that the job opportunities provided for MACRO are provided to people who are from the neighborhoods they will be serving,” said Burch, who is also a member of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force—a group of Oakland community members appointed by the city who are tasked with creating recommendations to redirect funds from the Oakland Police Department to social services, resources and public frameworks that create true community safety.

Advocates point to Mental Health First (or “MH First”) as a model of success, the non-emergency hotline that was co-founded by Brooks and is a project of the APTP.

“We know there are swaths of our communities that will never dial [911], no matter how dire the need is,” Brooks said, noting that city-run programs like CAHOOTS have been criticized for relying too heavily on law enforcement, thus further traumatizing people of color. Further, she posits that the racial demographics of a city will have an impact on the ways in which community members will engage with these programs—that a city like Oakland has a different set of factors to consider than a city like Eugene. Because of the deep-seated distrust in law enforcement in Oakland, Brooks envisions city-run programs like MACRO working in tandem with grassroots efforts like MH First to provide multiple alternatives to policing.

Next steps: when will MACRO launch?

Though approving MACRO in the Oakland City Council is the first major milestone in creating the program, much work remains to get it up and running. For one, City Administrator Ed Reiskin was tasked with creating a full-time MACRO manager position by April 20. Additionally, city staff are still working on creating new staff positions, including a crisis support specialist and on-call behavioral health clinician, and training the pairs of first responders before being able to launch the pilot in East Oakland. 

Isabella Fertel is a graduate student studying at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. Jamie Omar Yassin is an independent report in Oakland covering city politics, public land, homelessness, and the Police Commission.