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

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

Teams with the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program will now 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 calls to 911. The 18-month pilot project has been in operation for four months and until Aug. 1 was only doing “on-site” assessments. MACRO officers would patrol designated areas and look for individuals in need of assistance with the goal of intervening before emergency services were called. MACRO currently operates eight hours a day and has 19 employees.

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

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

The pilot, run by the Oakland Fire Department, launched on April 9 and has had almost 3,500 interactions. The program was intended to be run by a community-based provider, but was transferred to the fire department by the city council in March 2021. Jones said most of MACRO’s contacts have been welfare checks — a significant 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 in East and West Oakland, but there are 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 officers. Jones said MACRO teams spend more time with people in need of services than police do — sometimes spending several hours on a single call. In addition, MACRO employees do not impose their services on anyone.

“We’re not there to hold face,” Jones said. “We will not move you against your will. You must agree to everything we offer. If we come on a hot day and offer you a bottle of water, we need to hear you say yes or agree to accept it. We’re not just going to throw it at your feet and say, ‘Good luck.’

MACRO is one of several community response programs stemming from widespread calls for alternatives to traditional policing following the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and several other deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers. Programs typically involve community-led interventions that take place before calls are made to the police.

Recent research on Denver’s Support Team Assistance Program suggests that such programs, which connect people with health services, reduce police engagement with nonviolent individuals in crisis.

“We find that the program produced large and sustained reductions in reports of STAR-related crimes in treated precincts, while unrelated crimes during the treatment period changed little in these same police precincts,” noted Stanford researchers Thomas Dee and James Pine in the study.

Researchers estimate that the pilot program reduced the number of STAR-related incidents in the study areas by 34% over a six-month period.

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

“We gave you a really short period of time, and I think you met that standard,” Councilman Sheng Tao said during the meeting.

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

“Please be patient,” Jones said. “It’s shaping up. It’s new. It’s new for our city. And we all learn. Dispatchers are learning. PD is learning. The fire department is learning. I learn as a manager and my teams learn and shape this every day at work.”

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