MACRO will be housed in the Oakland Fire Department. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland is slowly but steadily delivering on its promise to “reimagine” public safety by shrinking the role of the police.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to set up an emergency response unit within the Oakland Fire Department. Called MACRO, the program will be piloted for one year in East Oakland and possibly also West Oakland. When people call 911 to report certain types of nonviolent emergencies or other problems, civilian workers with medical and mental health training will respond, instead of the police.

The point of the program, say its supporters, is to prevent police from escalating situations, conducting violent arrests, or killing someone. The program could also save Oakland millions of dollars by reducing reliance on police officers, who are more expensive to hire and maintain. A recent survey of Oaklanders found that 58% of residents support having someone other than the police respond to nonviolent emergencies, including mental health calls.

During the pilot phase, the city could choose to contract with Alameda County to employ mental health specialists and emergency medical technicians, or to hire and train these employees. The city administration will bring a plan back to council by April 20 to appropriate funds and hire a full-time manager for MACRO. The council’s vote on Tuesday specified that the city administrator is to “expedite” the program’s budgeting and hiring, and return with monthly progress reports to ensure it’s up and running as soon as possible.

“This comes out of a strong and extensive community effort,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan during yesterday’s meeting. 

Kaplan was one of the early elected officials to lend support for the idea, but she said it was grassroots activists who first proposed reducing reliance on police for mental health calls. Volunteers examined a handful of existing programs in other states, held community forums to gauge local support, and lobbied the Police Commission and City Council for a feasibility study and other crucial work to advance MACRO from an idea to a reality. 

The MACRO program’s origins go back several years.

In February 2019, the Oakland Police Commission held a public hearing in West Oakland’s Taylor Memorial Church to listen to members of the homeless community about their interactions with the police. Numerous unsheltered Oakland residents and advocates complained at the meeting about OPD’s response to calls for service at encampments, especially mental health crises, and they asked the city to set up a non-police team to help.

Three months later, the Police Commission held a hearing to learn about CAHOOTS, a mobile crisis intervention team active for many years in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon. CAHOOTS is one of a handful of programs nationally that have proven the concept of using unarmed civilians to respond to nonviolent calls. The group handles about 20% of 911 calls and estimates that it has saved local governments $15 million by preventing the deployment of police, EMTs, and avoiding arrests, hospitalizations, and other expensive outcomes. After hearing about the program, the Police Commission voted to urge the City Council to fund a study to determine if Oakland could create a similar program.

In June 2019, the Coalition for Police Accountability, a volunteer group that led the campaign to establish the Oakland Police Commission in 2016, held a forum in North Oakland’s St. Columba Catholic Church that included a presentation from a member of CAHOOTS. Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, wrote in an email advertising the 2019 forum that recent police shootings, including the killing of Miles Hall by police in Walnut Creek after his family dialed 911 when he was suffering a mental health crisis, underscored the need to push ahead with a new program in Oakland. “This is exactly the kind of situation that is much more safely handled by mental health workers than by law enforcement,” wrote Grinage.

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Building on this momentum, the City Council included $40,000 in the 2019-2020 budget to study the feasibility of setting up a program like CAHOOTS. The study was delayed by the city administration for nine months, but eventually concluded that “the current resources and systems for responding to non-criminal emergency calls are woefully deficient,” and that there was broad agreement and support for “creating a pilot to replace police officers with a team of civilian responders” to handle “mental health and non-criminal community crises.”

Also in 2019, activists with the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland and Sacramento were developing their own non-police service for mental health emergencies, called Mental Health First. The group launched MH First in Sacramento in January 2020 and brought the program to Oakland last August. APTP also advocated for MACRO and gave input on how the program should be shaped. 

But the group was also critical of the process. At a June 2020 Police Commission meeting, APTP co-founder Cat Brooks told commissioners that MACRO’s planners had failed to prioritize the voices of Oaklanders who are most impacted by OPD on a daily basis. “I don’t understand how we build a model that’s supposed to serve a particular population and we don’t include the population that’s supposed to serve at the get-go,” said Brooks.

Responding to these concerns, the City Council’s decision yesterday requires staff to seek more community input to shape the program before it launches.

The City Council set aside $1.8 million for MACRO in the budget approved last June, an amount that could grow significantly over time if the pilot is successful.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about a piece of legislation that represents true partnership between community, labor, and the folks that we elect to sit in those seats,” said Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, during a public comment period at yesterday’s council meeting. “Oakland has a chance to be the vanguard, to really do it right.”

Brooks said momentum for a program like MACRO really began to build after a “bloody 2015” when OPD officers killed eleven Black people. APTP began a “Defund OPD” campaign calling for budget cuts to the police and reinvestment in other city services in 2017, years before the idea caught on nationally.

APTP was one of several organizations to apply for a contract to run MACRO for the city. But APTP, along with two other groups that ranked higher on evaluations conducted by city staff, withdrew their bids for the contract following significant controversy over who should run MACRO, setting the stage for OFD to house the program.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.