When the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland pilot program launched in April 2022, many community stakeholders were deeply invested in seeing the program gain a permanent spot in the city’s array of public safety services. This month, the MACRO pilot ended. Now city leaders are starting to map out the program’s long-term future.
On Monday, the Public Safety and Services Oversight Commission, a volunteer board of Oaklanders that advises the city, mulled some of the most pressing questions about MACRO.
MACRO is a civilian team of first responders who show up to non-violent, non-emergency 911 calls. In a snapshot: MACRO has made over 15,000 total contacts with people over the past 18 months. Most of these contacts—10,145—have been wellness checks. Nearly 3,600 cases involved people sleeping on the street. The remaining cases involve people who are panhandling, exhibiting public indecency, or representing other concerning behavior. This data only goes through August of this year.
The main purpose of MACRO is to divert 911 calls away from police and fire that can be more appropriately handled by civilians. This would be a significant boon for Oakland’s beleaguered 911 system, which has underperformed on response times to calls. But so far, MACRO responders have received relatively few calls from dispatchers.
In recent months, a steady number of MACRO contacts have come through 911 dispatch and community referrals. Simultaneously, there’s been a decline in cases where MACRO responders proactively reach out to someone they spot on the street.
“We have heard anecdotally from officers and fire companies they’re going on less calls,” said Elliott Jones, MACRO’s program manager. “While we don’t have the data from those two departments to support that, we have heard it from the officers in the field.”
Lack of data is one of the lingering concerns about the program. Jones said he has been unable to get data from the Oakland Police Department or Fire Department that would confirm that fewer officers are going on non-emergency calls.
“I have asked for it over the lifetime of the program,” Jones said, adding that he has no timeline for when he’ll receive this information. MACRO is housed in the Oakland Fire Department but operates as a separate program.
Another stumbling block for MACRO is that responders can’t compel people to accept services. Of the 15,000 contacts MACRO has made over 18 months, responders were only able to persuade individuals to accept services in about 2,500 cases.
Now that the pilot is over, Jones said MACRO is shifting into its second phase. This will involve growing the MACRO staff from 11 to around 30, finalizing the purchase of new equipment, and trying to expand its operating hours to 24 hours a day. The fire department is also planning to hire a public information officer for MACRO to help raise awareness of the program.
One thing MACRO doesn’t have to worry about is funding. OFD’s Public Information Officer Michael Hunt said MACRO has money for the next two fiscal years through state and city commitments.
Jones emphasized that MACRO is still in its “infancy” and that there are indicators the program is on the right track. He cautioned against comparing MACRO to programs in other cities, such as CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, which is decades older than Oakland’s program.
A new commission for MACRO?
At Monday’s meeting, some members of the Public Safety and Services Oversight Commission expressed concern about the fact that MACRO has its own email, but not a dedicated phone number. Hunt explained that the original vision for the program was to use the existing dispatch system to divert calls. But commissioners noted that lack of trust in law enforcement and the 911 system may bar some people from using MACRO.
“It’s absolutely paramount we get a direct line for MACRO,” said Commissioner Michael Wallace. “I know people in the community have lost confidence in calling 911 and getting a timely response, if a response at all, and as a result, people are becoming very frustrated.”
Hunt responded that “I think everyone in Oakland agrees the 911 system is broken,” and that MACRO could be a valuable tool for repairing trust. According to Hunt, MACRO is scheduled to get a dedicated phone number at some point early next year.
Another significant question for MACRO stakeholders is who will share oversight of the program now that it’s moved out of the pilot phase. For the past 18 months, OFD has hosted and run the pilot program, and will continue to house it. The department has shared updates with the City Council and with an advisory board staffed by volunteers.
The advisory board does not meet publicly. Members of the Coalition for Police Accountability—an activist group whose members were instrumental in convincing the city to establish MACRO—as well as at least one member of the board, have said this arrangement is unacceptable.
Hunt said members of the advisory board have mixed feelings about opening their meetings to the public. But he acknowledged there isn’t a clear-cut justification for keeping it closed.
“I don’t think there’s a solid reason why we haven’t opened it up,” Hunt said. He also noted that the City Council provided little guidance on the structure of the advisory board when it was first creating MACRO.
Paula Hawthorn, who chairs the Public Safety and Services Oversight Commission, said MACRO “falls into our bailiwick” because the program is housed in the fire department, which receives Measure Z money. Passed by voters in 2014, Measure Z raised millions of dollars through a parcel tax and divided up this money among OPD, the fire department, and other city programs. The measure also established the Public Safety and Services Oversight Commission as a watchdog to ensure the money was responsibly spent. Hawthorn said it’s not enough to make the meetings of MACRO’s advisory board public, and that it probably needs a more formalized oversight body.
“You need the infrastructure, the administrator to help. I honestly think it’s a more complicated thing,” Hawthorn said. “What I was feeling, in talking to people, is they need to have their own commission, just like the SSOC.”
During Monday’s meeting, Hawthorn created a committee to work with the MACRO team and its advisory board to help guide the program and build public awareness for it. The commissioners emphasized they’re not trying to take anything away from the advisory board.
Anne Janks, representing the Coalition for Police Accountability, said her organization, which advocated for the founding of MACRO, is “absolutely exhausted” from fielding calls from people who need to contact the program.
“We’d like very much for there to be mechanisms in place for people to be able to reach MACRO,” Janks said. She also complained that the advisory board’s lack of transparency makes it unaccountable to the public.
Janks also took issue with what she believes is a lack of adequate training for dispatchers on how to identify MACRO calls. A member of the advisory board, Millie Cleveland, speaking in her personal capacity, expressed frustration that MACRO staff have not provided her with sufficient details about the training and evaluation of responders.
“I have resorted to submitting public information requests to the city of Oakland because I can’t get answers as an advisory board member, and I still don’t have a lot of those answers because the city isn’t in compliance with their [public records] rules,” Cleveland said.
According to Jones, MACRO regularly meets with dispatchers from the police and fire departments to discuss the types of calls that should go to MACRO. The program also offers to take dispatchers on ride-alongs so they can see what MACRO responders do. He indicated that 311 may also receive the same kind of information in the future.
Julia Owens, another member of MACRO’s advisory board, said it’s important to understand that dispatchers err on the side of caution in their calls to avoid any chance of sending civilians into harm’s way.
“They want to be completely confident before they send an unarmed person to a situation they don’t have eyes on,” Owens said.
A more comprehensive analysis of the program won’t be published until later this month or early November.