An innovative Oakland program for helping people in crisis is reaching thousands of residents, but it’s still struggling with one of its main goals: diverting non-emergency calls from the Oakland Police Department.
Oakland officials launched MACRO in April 2022. The purpose of the 18-month pilot program, which is under the control of the Oakland Fire Department, is to have civilian workers respond to non-violent, non-emergency 911 calls.
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The pilot arose out of community concerns that the Oakland Police Department was not the appropriate agency for responding to many emergency calls, especially for people of color experiencing mental health crises. Officials wanted the program to divert non-emergency calls from the OPD, freeing officers to address serious crimes.
As of June 2023, the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program has conducted 13,236 contacts with community members, which include checking on people sleeping or panhandling in public, public indecency, and behavioral issues. They also performed wellness checks.
A growing number of MACRO calls come from residents and businesses, as opposed to responders spotting people on the street, according to an informational report that will be heard on Tuesday by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
But to date, MACRO is receiving just a handful of calls each day from OPD. According to an 11-month report on MACRO released earlier this year, the program gets fewer than six calls from dispatch daily.
“MACRO has worked closely with our dispatch partners to make improvements to operations and ensure that more calls are coming to MACRO from police dispatch,” staff said in the report.
Some MACRO supporters are frustrated by the program’s limitations. At a town hall meeting with the fire department earlier this year, residents raised concerns about the relatively low number of MACRO-eligible calls coming through police dispatchers.
They also criticized OFD for prohibiting MACRO responders from entering buildings, which they say unnecessarily limits the program’s reach. And some advocates are upset that the program has a community advisory board that doesn’t meet publicly or publish its minutes.
While MACRO may not be diverting many OPD calls, its responders are still reaching individuals experiencing crises and connecting them with resources. According to the informational report, a MACRO team in April was referred to Kinfolx Coffee after an individual entered the building and caused a disturbance. A member of the team spoke with the individual and got their name and date of birth, which allowed the responders to learn about the individual’s medical history and needs. The individual left after receiving some supplies from the team.
Over the course of nearly a year, MACRO responders distributed 2,375 blankets to unhoused individuals, according to the 11-month report. The program has also made hundreds of referrals for individuals to different service providers, including CARES Navigation, the West Oakland Health Clinic, Dignity on Wheels, ROOTS Community Clinic, and St. Vincent DePaul, among others.
In another example from earlier this year, MACRO responders received a call from OPD dispatch about a person whose electric wheelchair had died on a hill while traveling home at night. The team located the individual, helped them into a van, and drove them home. According to the report, the individual had no other way of getting home.
The report says Oakland is preparing to recruit outside candidates to fill vacancies in MACRO as part of its plans to expand hours of operation, according to the report. MACRO currently operates seven days a week but only between 6:30 am and 10 pm.
MACRO did not receive much attention from City Councilmembers during discussions about Oakland’s biennial budget, which was approved last month. But council members expressed support for MACRO in their budget proposals, and the program does not appear to have experienced any changes in the final budget. It remains to be seen what changes—if any—the City Council seeks to initiate when the pilot ends in the fall.