students holding signs at a protest
MACRO, an alternative 911 program, emerged from the movement to rethink crisis response in Oakland and beyond. Credit: Courtesy Youth Together

The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to launch MACRO, a highly anticipated non-police emergency response program, under the oversight of the Oakland Fire Department. 

Through MACRO, or Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, some 911 calls will be directed to a two-person team consisting of a paramedic and a counselor or outreach worker, instead of the police.

In Tuesday’s vote, the council directed city staff to look into various options for getting the one-year MACRO pilot up and running quickly through the fire department, whether by hiring temporary new staff, or by contracting with the county or a non-profit organization that has expertise in mental health. 

Councilmembers also expressed a desire to have the fire department continue running MACRO after the initial pilot period, seemingly putting to rest a discussion that exploded in recent weeks about whether the emergency-response effort should be operated by the city or by a private contractor.

“I always have felt that ultimately this should become an in-house agency, with regular city employees running this,” said District 1 Coucilmember Dan Kalb, echoing many others who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting to say that move would commit Oakland to permanently reshaping its 911 dispatch system, through a department—the Oakland Fire Department—that’s well-known and respected throughout the city, and already set up to operate a 24-hour program.

City Administrator Ed Reiskin, however, warned before the vote that the pilot could get underway faster if contracted out to another organization.

MACRO supporters say police shouldn’t respond to all emergencies

MACRO emerged from a movement calling on cities to invest in alternatives to law enforcement, in light of high-profile police killings and violence across the U.S.

In Oakland in early 2019, the civilian-led Police Commission held a meeting on policing and homelessness in the city, where unhoused residents and advocates said counselors and paramedics would be better positioned to deescalate many crises and non-violent incidents that too often end in tense or violent police confrontations.

Shortly after that meeting, the Coalition for Police Accountability, an Oakland advocacy group that pushes for police oversight and transparency, urged the city to launch a program similar to one in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS, where medics and mental-health workers respond to many non-violent 911 calls. Members of Eugene’s CAHOOTS team came down to Oakland to present to city staff and organizers in the spring of 2019, prompting the City Council to fund a study determining how a similar program might work in Oakland, as proposed by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

In June 2020, as Oakland and other cities were erupting in pain and protests after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the feasibility study was released and the council set aside $1.35 million to launch a MACRO pilot in parts of Oakland. 

“For once, the community will have a top-down belief that the community can solve its own problems,” said Cathy Leonard, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability. “Even the police will admit that there are some calls they don’t need or want to respond to.”

She told The Oaklandside that many 911 calls for mild disturbances, disputes, or mental-health crises would be best suited for a MACRO response. For example, say “there’s a guy out here screaming on my street,” she said. “If he needs some help, it would be good to be able to call MACRO, and they could deescalate without running him down to John George [Psychiatric Hospital] and then release him back out on the street without really solving the problem.”

Leonard said she grew up in North and East Oakland during the Black Panther Party era and has witnessed decades of mistreatment of Black communities by the police—and resultant mistrust of the police. Who ends up working for MACRO matters, she said.

“We want people hired by the MACRO program to have lived in the impacted communities where this pilot is going to take place,” said Leonard. “They can go into those communities and have a dialogue.” The city says it plans to launch the MACRO pilot somewhere in East Oakland, as well as possibly West Oakland, but specifics on where and when have not been determined. 

Debate over who should run MACRO turns tense

The MACRO pilot will be run by the Oakland Fire Department, possibly through partnering with the county or counseling organizations. Credit: Pete Rosos

Councilmembers, city staff, union leaders, and activists have repeatedly marveled at the seemingly universal support MACRO has managed to earn over time. “In my time here I haven’t seen a whole lot of [other] concepts come before the council that everyone seems to think is a good idea,” said Reiskin, the city administrator, on Tuesday.

So why has the program drawn heated debate in recent weeks? 

The question of whether to launch MACRO as an in-house city agency or to contract with a community organization to run it has resulted in contentious public meetings and tension between the City Council and city administration.

Early discussions about MACRO indicated that the program would likely be run by an Oakland-based independent nonprofit. But some officials, particularly Kaplan, who represents the whole city as the at-large councilmember, have been asking for several months about the possibility of the city of Oakland operating the program directly. 

In December, the council approved a resolution from Kaplan asking staff to report on the possibility of MACRO being run in-house, based on strong support within the city for the program and the need for full-time employees to carry it out. 

The city has not yet produced that report. In a detailed article on the MACRO operator saga, journalist Jaime Omar Yassin published a Feb. 8 email from Reiskin in which the administrator told Kaplan that the city intended to conduct such an evaluation during the pilot, not before it started.

On Feb. 9, at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, city staffers proposed awarding the contract to run the MACRO pilot to the nonprofit Bay Area Community Services, or BACS, prompting an outpouring of criticism. Public commenters shared concerns about conditions at some of the other shelters and transitional housing facilities that BACS runs in the East Bay, and questioned the success and transparency of the many BACS programs the city has repeatedly funded.

In response to that criticism, Kaplan issued a proposal for the council to instead consider the organization that got the second-best marks from city staff, La Familia, a Bay Area organization that provides mental health services.

A staffer from the city’s Department of Violence Prevention—which had been tasked with recommending a group to run MACRO and had chosen BACS—said during the meeting that she was shocked at how the conversation about who should run MACRO had unfolded. In a report a few days later, City Administrator Ed Reiskin said that “in the interest of transparency, and out of respect for staff’s efforts,” the council should also consider the BACS recommendation before dismissing it outright. Staff said during the meeting that BACS has a track record of running numerous facilities and programs in Oakland, and has the staffing capacity to get the program going quickly.

But those twists and turns, and proposed legislation that came out of that meeting, ended up being moot when both BACS and La Familia withdrew their applications to run MACRO on Feb. 18. In short statements, neither organization explained their withdrawals but both expressed support for MACRO moving forward. Shortly before publication, The Oaklandside requested a copy of a letter BACS wrote to councilmembers about the events of the Feb. 9 meeting, and will update this story when we receive it. 

At this Tuesday’s meeting, city administrator Reiskin responded to an earlier request from council president Nikki Fortunato Bas for more information about running the MACRO pilot under the supervision of the fire department. 

As part of his remarks, Reiskin said his staff was simply following previous council direction to seek proposals from contractors and recommend the best: “We are 100% on board with implementing this any way council directs,” he said.

But Reiskin added that “the fastest path to getting the pilot in place would be through a community organization,” since the city would have to create new staff positions and possibly pay higher rates if it ran the program itself. If the council had embraced the BACS proposal, he said, “perhaps by now we would have had MACRO up and running.”

But officials and community members noted that other cities have successfully launched similar programs within months, and pointed to the fact that Oakland’s council already set aside money for MACRO.

Ultimately, all members of the City Council voted to place the MACRO pilot under the supervision of the Oakland Fire Department.

What’s next to get MACRO off the ground?

The MACRO concept was developed before the summer 2020 protest movement in response to police violence, but was funded by the city in their wake. Credit: Pete Rosos

Zac Unger, president of Oakland’s firefighters’ union, said OFD is enthusiastic about running MACRO and believes it can get the pilot up and running quickly. “I think MACRO can get underway pretty quickly if the city administration and City Council back this,” he told The Oaklandside. “If the bureaucracy is not behind it, it can drag out forever.” 

“It’s not like we went out looking for this program, but it seemed like a natural fit,” Unger added. “We have a level of engagement in the community where we’re readily accepted in all neighborhoods, and by people from all walks of life. People know us as helpers.” 

Leonard of the Coalition for Police Accountability said people in underserved neighborhoods feel that “when they”—meaning Oakland firefighters—“come to a fire here, they fight it just like they would fight a fire in the hills.”

But Oakland firefighters wouldn’t become MACRO responders; new staff would be hired and trained for this program. Advocates say the program should come with its own branding and uniforms, so people who receive the service learn to recognize MACRO as its own, unique program, distinct from a traditional response. 

The benefit of hiring those people to work directly for the city, said Unger, is “good, stable jobs with good wages and benefits” that discourage heavy turnover. Other city unions also supported the move to bring MACRO in-house, staffed by union workers.

Running the program through OFD would require the city to purchase new vehicles, radios, and other equipment, said Unger, an investment he believes will end up saving the city and county money in the long-run, as sending people through the criminal justice system is highly costly.  

The Reimagining Public Safety Task Force—a group established in July, in the wake of national protests against police brutality, to explore how to cut OPD’s budget and redirect the funds elsewhere—also supports OFD running MACRO. 

“Making MACRO permanent through creation of city staff positions and expanding service citywide will also create hundreds of living wage jobs for impacted BIPOC residents in Oakland who will be hired and trained to serve their communities as MACRO responders and EMTs,” the task force said in a recommendation. The group’s proposal also says Oakland should further fund MACRO so that it serves almost all of the city within three years, taking over 20% of 911 calls, like Oregon’s CAHOOTS. 

(It is not actually clear how many jobs MACRO will create, but likely fewer than “hundreds” initially. The proposed BACS contract for the pilot was for $1.6 million.)

Some community members have also urged OFD to partner with MH First, an existing non-police response program run by the Anti Police-Terror Project. MH First has trained hundreds of BIPOC Oaklanders to respond to calls that come in to their free crisis phone and text lines about mental-health crises, domestic violence, and substance use issues. APTP also applied to operate MACRO itself, but was not selected by city staff. In its application, APTP suggested that MACRO be staffed by city employees, and raised concerns that the program was developed without sufficient input from impacted communities.

While the full City Council supported the move to go forward with an OFD-run MACRO on Tuesday, some officials apologized to organizations that wanted to operate the program, as well as the public, for putting them through an application process that didn’t pan out, and for allowing the debate to get tense.

“I do feel we did a disservice to the public, and first of all to our community partners who we work with on a regular basis,” said District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor. “I think the fact that we fostered an environment to where all the leading respondents felt as though it was too caustic of an environment to continue on, and we forced them out of the process, that’s very unfortunate.”

The council’s vote directs staff to report back on March 16 on its progress setting up a MACRO pilot under the supervision of the Oakland Fire Department. Councilmembers Bas and Kalb announced that they plan to propose legislation at the same meeting to establish a “civilian crisis response division” where MACRO would reside.

This story was updated after publication to include additional information about APTP’s application to operate MACRO.

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.