Oakland activists, like these protesters at Mosswood Park in June, have long called for an alternative to the police. A pilot program in Oakland is giving it a go. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Imagine calling 911 because someone around you is going through a mental health crisis but, instead of an armed police officer showing up, an unarmed counselor and EMT arrive. They might peacefully mediate an argument or find someone a shelter bed. They might take a person to a hospital, or give them a bottle of water. But nobody is handcuffed, nobody’s taken to jail, and no weapons are anywhere in sight.

Many of the activists calling on cities to “defund” or “abolish” the police envision this type of alternative system as a permanent solution, removing cops from thousands of service calls each year. Now, Oakland will give it a go. Last week, the City Council voted to set aside $1.35 million for a new pilot program called Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO.

Groups in Oakland like the Coalition for Police Accountability and Anti Police-Terror Project have long pushed for eliminating a police response from circumstances where other methods could be more humane and effective.

“One of the things you hear over and over again in these discussions with unhoused folks is, there are times we really need to call somebody, but we need it not to be the police,” said Anne Janks, an organizer with the Coalition for Police Accountability, which began pushing for the city to adopt a MACRO-like program in early 2019.

The role the police play in addressing non-violent 911 calls has been of particular concern, said David Harris, CEO of Urban Strategies Council, who has been involved in the work of envisioning Oakland’s program. “They’d get a call about someone urinating in the middle of the street and they’d send five or six cops. There was always the ability of a situation to flare into an unintended consequence—that consequence generally being violence against the person who was needing help,” he said

Depending on how well the MACRO program performs, it could be the start of a major shift in Oakland. Several councilmembers have expressed support for a comprehensive review of 911 calls to determine just what proportion of OPD’s total workload can be taken over by unarmed civilians with a focus on health and crisis intervention. Over the next year, MACRO will roll out in at least one part of the city to test its effectiveness.

Years of effort

Oakland didn’t just rush to adopt MACRO following the nationwide protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor earlier this year. In fact, the pilot program is the product of years of grassroots research and advocacy, said City Council President Rebecca Kaplan. 

“We need to have a mental health response for mental health needs,” said Kaplan. “Sending someone who has a gun and doesn’t have mental health training makes no sense. If someone was having a mental health crisis and we sent a plumber, people would be like, ‘Why are you doing this?’”

In early 2019, the civilian-led Oakland Police Commission held a meeting on policing and homelessness. There, dozens of unhoused people called for an alternative to a police response, said Janks, who with other activists soon came across an intriguing program in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS—Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets—sends medics and mental health professionals out to respond to at least 20% of 911 calls in that city. The program has been around since 1989 and has received national recognition for its success in treating mental health outside of the criminal justice system and saving the city millions of dollars a year.

The Coalition for Police Accountability suggested Oakland try something similar, said Harris of the Urban Strategies Council. In the spring of 2019, CAHOOTS representatives came down to Oakland from Oregon to make a presentation to those groups and some city officials and staff. Soon afterward, Kaplan proposed funding a $40,000 contract for Urban Strategies to conduct a feasibility study in Oakland, which the council approved. 

The city ended up taking several months to produce the contract, but the Urban Strategies Council began researching the potential of a similar program in Oakland, and held meetings with some 25 community groups before producing a draft feasibility report in June. The Oaklandside has asked the city of Oakland why there was a delay in finalizing the contract. We will update this story if we hear back.

Janks said that through all her organizing work in Oakland, MACRO has been the only program she’s seen with near-universal support. At the beginning of the year, she was already expecting the City Council to fund it, but when the pandemic left a “COVID-sized hole” in the budget,” she wasn’t so optimistic anymore.

Then, Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, and protests against police brutality and systemic racism broke out in Oakland and around the world. Suddenly, “defunding the police” was a household term. A few weeks later, the City Council was set to vote on updating parts of its budget.

“It was sort of like being in the right place at the right time, and having something on paper people could react to,” Harris said. “I don’t think they had a choice but to approve [MACRO] because there were so few alternatives on the table.”  

MACRO became part of a new package that cuts $12 million from OPD’s budget. Three councilmembers, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Sheng Thao, and Dan Kalb, did not support the updated budget because they felt the vote was rushed through before they or the public could take a close look at the updates. However, all three have also expressed strong support for MACRO.

The Oakland Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the MACRO pilot.

Tailoring a program for Oakland’s multitude of communities

MACRO proponents say the program could save the city and county millions of dollars in police overtime, arrest and detention costs, ambulance trips, and mental health stays. In Eugene, CAHOOTS saves the city $8.5 million a year, according to Urban Strategies.

But Oakland is different. Eugene, a small city in Oregon where nearly 80% of the population is white, has less need for first responders who can speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, or other languages, or who have the competency and background to work with people from diverse cultures. MACRO can only borrow so much from CAHOOTS.

“Given Oakland’s diversity and complexity and history, there had to be a model for Oakland,” Harris said.

At a Police Commission meeting earlier this month, some activists said during public comment that people who’ve been directly impacted by police violence had been left out of the planning conversations about MACRO. Harris told The Oaklandside that the Urban Strategies Council needed to wait for the city to finalize the contract before the group began interviewing community members. He said a deeper engagement process is coming soon. 

MACRO supporters agree that the civilian responders need to be recruited from the communities they’ll be working with, so they share a cultural understanding with the people they’ll be serving. Harris also sees MACRO as a potential job creation program during a major economic downturn.

“In conversations with community folks, it is very clear there is a deep well of people who have the skillset to do this job within our Oakland communities,” Janks said. She said advocates want to see a competitive pay rate in order to recruit and retain those workers.

The feasibility report suggests pulling responders from Alameda County’s EMS Corps training program for young men. It also notes that using non-licensed mental health professionals would be most cost-effective and would also open the hiring pool to non-traditional applicants. 

But doing so would present liability concerns if responders were accused of misconduct, or if something went wrong on a call and someone was injured or killed. (CAHOOTS reports that none of its responders has ever been hospitalized from an injury on the job.) And while advocates think the program should be open to applicants who themselves have experience with the criminal justice system, a background check is required for anyone to carry a police radio, which MACRO responders would be required to have.

Equipped for all kinds of emergencies

MACRO’s proponents envision that civilian responders will be equipped with medical equipment like EpiPens to revive people experiencing a drug overdose, and oxygen tanks, and that they’ll carry supplies like water and hand warmers due to the surprising frequency of simple and preventable health emergencies like hypothermia and dehydration. They would also be permitted to transport people to service centers or hospitals with their consent. 

Harris said 911 dispatchers would screen emergency calls to determine which could be handled by MACRO. MACRO responders would then be sent to a scene if, for example, a call came in about unhoused people sleeping in the doorway of a business or in the middle of the street, or if two clearly unarmed people were having an argument.

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OPD does not track the exact number of 911 calls that are related to unhoused people or those experiencing mental health challenges, according to Urban Strategies. But in the past few years, as Oakland’s unhoused population has grown significantly, dispatch calls related to people experiencing homelessness have increased “dramatically,” according to the organization. A disproportionately high percentage of Oakland’s unhoused population is Black, and a wealth of research shows police are more likely to use force during interactions with Black and Latinx people than others. Those interactions can often have lasting consequences for the people involved, Janks said.

“If you arrest a homeless person, dominoes start falling in their lives,” she said. “They often lose their spot in the encampment. They lose paperwork if they were applying for any social services. If they don’t show up in court then they have a warrant. It’s also very expensive for the community.”

Harris said the program will only be successful in a neighborhood where MACRO is deeply connected with existing service providers. It’s likely that the city will contract with an existing service organization to launch MACRO, and that the pilot will focus on just one or two parts of the city so that it’s not spread too thin, and so that its effectiveness can be compared with other parts of Oakland where MACRO isn’t operating.

Needa Bee, the founder of The Village Oakland, an unhoused community, said the people she spends time with are over-policed and she welcomes an alternative like MACRO. But she said it will take some time for people to feel comfortable calling 911.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of education so the community understands what this program is,” Bee said. After that, “to have a new approach that doesn’t even begin with criminalization—that’s going to make all the difference in the world,” she said. 

Bee said she’s watched countless aggressive interactions between police and people going through a crisis. 

Sometimes she intervenes and finds out that what’s required is simple de-escalation and listening. “Literally all they need is a fucking hug,” said Bee.

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.