MACRO, Oakland’s alternative 911 program, getting dispatched to fewer calls
on November 4, 2023
Nearly 18 months after its launch, the efficacy of a civilian unit in Oakland designed to handle certain non-violent 911 calls remains unclear.
While the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO, program has been praised for its compassionate, community-centered approach, recent city reports reveal that it is handling a declining number of dispatches — from a high of 1,397 in March to a low of 455 in July.
MACRO teams are sent to calls either by 911 police and fire dispatchers, community referrals or dispatches by the team itself, based on observation. The number of 911 dispatch calls to MACRO this year peaked in August at 285.
According to Elliott Jones, the program manager for MACRO, staffing and training issues within the 911 dispatch system and MACRO have kept that number relatively low. Additionally, MACRO has faced staffing challenges, further impacting its ability to meet community needs. One member of MACRO’s advisory board has criticized the City Council for not paying enough attention to these staffing and training problems.
The program in its current state is “dysfunctional,” said Millie Cleveland, a member of MACRO’s advisory board and of the Coalition for Police Accountability, an advocacy group that played a key role in MACRO’s creation.
“I don’t think that they are doing what they were designed to do,” Cleveland said. “They are not getting enough referrals that are coming from dispatch.”
The program has been hailed by both city officials and public safety activists for its community-centered, care-first approach. In September, Mayor Sheng Thao said she plans to more than double the program’s funding.
Public safety activists in Oakland, including the Coalition for Police Accountability, support the program but have raised concerns about its failure to respond to enough 911 calls.
In a statement to Oakland North, Thao’s spokesperson said the community has responded positively to MACRO and that the Fire Department will be issuing a full report on the pilot.
Calls drop below 1,000
MACRO was created to respond to non-violent and non-emergency 911 calls without the involvement of police officers. All 911 calls originate at the Oakland Police Dispatch Center. When a call meets the specific criteria for MACRO, it is transferred from dispatch to the Fire Department dispatch. Fire dispatch then sends a MACRO team to address the situation.
Michael Hunt, the Fire Department spokesperson, said 911 dispatchers must determine if a call fits one of three criteria before sending a MACRO team: behavioral concerns reflecting mild-to-moderate mental health issues, individual wellness checks, or non-aggressive community disturbances such as noise complaints.
According to MACRO impact reports, teams responded to 140 911 calls from police in July. That represented just 0.5% of the 27,203 911 calls that month, according to the police department’s communications division.
In each of the first three months of the year, MACRO teams were dispatched more than 1,000 times, counting 911 calls, community referrals and self-dispatches. The numbers have dropped below 1,000 since then, to a low of 455 calls in July.
The program that MACRO was modeled after was established in the Eugene-Springfield metro area of Oregon in 1989. By 2017, it reported handling 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s total call volume.
Jones, the MACRO program manager, acknowledged the low volume of calls coming from 911 dispatch. He said that MACRO is actively working with the 911 center to improve dispatcher training. The goal is to refine the criteria for routing specific calls to MACRO for more efficient responses.
Only half a staff
Though MACRO has funding for the next two years, Jones said the cause of declining dispatches is staffing issues. Although budgeted for 26 members, MACRO currently has only 11 employees. On average, fewer than two teams were in service each day during July, according to the impact report issued in August.
MACRO teams actively patrol the city and respond when they see issues such as mental health concerns, wellness checks, disturbances from intoxicated groups, public drunkenness or noise complaints. These responses don’t necessarily result from a 911 call and are called “self-dispatches.”
In addition to the limited number of calls being directed from 911 to MACRO, the MACRO teams themselves have been conducting fewer dispatches. Since March, there has been a steady decline in the number of self-dispatches made by MACRO teams. In March, MACRO conducted 1,273 self-dispatches, compared to just 200 in August.
MACRO started taking 911 calls in August 2022. In each of the four months before that, it was averaging around 800 interactions.
MACRO teams currently consist of a community intervention specialist and an emergency medical technician, with approximately five such teams actively serving the MACRO programs. MACRO teams operate seven days a week, spanning from 6:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Additionally, they have swing shifts from 2 to 10 p.m., based on staffing availability, with coverage assured at least three days a week.
“We’re in the hiring process right now. And I hope that’ll be wrapped up before we get to 2024 or shortly thereafter,” Jones said.
Jones did not respond to questions on how many people he is currently interviewing to fill vacancies.
Councilmemeber Dan Kalb has acknowledged the low number of dispatches. At a Sept. 19 council meeting, he authored a resolution, which the council passed, to require the city administrator to bring a report to City Council by December that outlines solutions to improve the number of 911 calls routed to MACRO.
“Once we get all this information, we can then make adjustments on how the MACRO program is used,” he said.
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