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Oakland 911 now can dispatch mental health calls to MACRO team instead of police

on August 15, 2022

Oakland’s community response pilot program, which launched last spring as an alternative to a police response, was connected this month to 911 dispatch services.

Teams with the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program now will be dispatched to calls about mental health crises, wellness checks and other issues that trained professionals may be better equipped to handle.

The MACRO program is an alternative response to non-violent, non-emergency 911 calls. The 18-month pilot has been in operation for four months and until Aug. 1, was doing “on-view” assessments only. MACRO employees would drive around designated areas and search for individuals in need of assistance, with the goal of intervening before emergency services were called. MACRO currently runs eight hours a day and employs 19 people.

“We are there for the individuals in need,” said Elliott Jones, MACRO program manager. “There are other groups within the city that focus on the property concerns, like the encampment management team, safety, of course, PD, but we are a compassion-and-care model that is there to address the needs of that individual and then try to navigate them to the available resources that are in Alameda County.” 

MACRO map
Map showing interactions from April through most of July, 2022, by the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program. (Courtesy City of Oakland)

The pilot, managed by the Oakland Fire Department, launched on April 9 and has had almost 3,500 interactions. The program was intended to be managed by a community-based provider, but was transferred to the Fire Department by the City Council in March, 2021. Jones said most of the MACRO contacts have been well-being checks — a substantial portion of which are checks on individuals sleeping on the street. As of late July, only three contacts had resulted in a transfer to law enforcement. MACRO is currently contained to East and West Oakland but has plans to expand to more neighborhoods.

Now that MACRO is connected to dispatch services, operators will transfer those calls to Fire Department communications, which will then dispatch MACRO employees. Jones said MACRO teams spend more time with people in need of services than police do — sometimes spending several hours on a single call. Additionally, MACRO employees do not force their services upon anyone.

“We’re not there to detain the individual,” Jones said. “We will not move you against your will. You have to agree to everything that we offer. If we come up on a hot day and offer you a bottle of water, you know, we need to hear you say yes or to agree to accept it. We won’t just throw it on your feet and say, ‘Good luck.’”

MACRO is one of several community response programs emerging from widespread calls for alternatives to traditional policing in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and several other high-profile deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers. The programs usually involve community-led interventions that take place before calls to police are made. 

Recent research on Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response program suggests such programs, which connect people with health services, reduce police engagement with non-violent individuals in crisis.

“We find that the program led to large and sustained reductions in reports of STAR-related offenses in treated precincts, while unrelated offenses over the treatment period changed little in those same police precincts,” Stanford researchers Thomas Dee and Jaymes Pyne note in the study. 

The researchers estimated the pilot program reduced the number of STAR-related incidents in studied precincts by 34% in a six-month period. 

Jones gave Oakland City Council an update on the MACRO program on July 19. 

“We gave you a really short runaway, and in my opinion, you have met that standard,” Councilmember Sheng Thao said, during the meeting.  

Jones and the council also discussed potential program expansions, including widening the coverage area. In an interview with Oakland North, Jones said it’s important for the community to understand the need to expand the program gradually. 

“Just please be patient,” Jones said. “This is shaping. It’s new. It’s new for our city. And we’re all learning. The dispatchers are learning. PD is learning. The Fire Department is learning. I’m learning as the manager, and my crews are learning and shaping this every day on the job.”

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