Oakland OK's pilot program where crisis unit would respond to some 911 calls instead of police

As the nation grapples with the fallout from George Floyd's death and how to reimagine policing, Oakland city councilmembers on Tuesday unanimously approved trying out a pilot program where some 911 calls would be handled by a community crisis unit run out of the fire department. 

After nearly five hours of public comment and explanations about how the program might work, the council gave the green light to expedite the implementation of the "Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland," otherwise known as MACRO, from within the Oakland Fire Department.

Oakland City Council President Nikki Bas and Councilmember Dan Kalb introduced the resolution, which had eight co-sponsors in all. 

The resolution - to send civilian peer counselors, mental health specialists and paramedics to many types of calls instead of police -- will be brought to the council again and a final vote on the issue is scheduled for April 20.   

"There are so many emergency calls that do not require a badge and a gun," said Cathy Leonard, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Police Accountability, the grassroots group that helped push this idea. "Our neighbors will be safer and offered connections to resources and referrals, knowing that any solution will be one they help to develop...We have been hearing from Oaklanders for years that small interactions with police often escalate."

The goal is to hire peer counselors and EMTs from the neighborhoods that they would serve. Some would be formerly incarcerated and unhoused people, who truly understand the situations many people in crisis are calling about. A typical salary would be $70,000 plus benefits. 

As Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police Terror-Project and the executive director of the Justice Teams Network, pointed out, however: "This is not an Oakland problem, it’s a national problem."

Her group has long-pushed for MACRO, calling it a "major step in beginning to reduce the risk of incarceration, violence, or death for a person in crisis." 

Despite the go-ahead from the council to move forward with the program, it's not yet known, however, when MACRO would actually be up and running.

Still, the mission is clear.

Oakland's MACRO proposal is based on the much-lauded CAHOOTS program run out of the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon, where community crisis experts, not police, show up to the majority of emergency calls. 

The Eugene program has teams made up of one crisis worker and one paramedic who are dispatched 24/7 through the 911 system to respond to crisis calls. They handle about 30,000 calls a year and require police backup in fewer than 1% of cases. No one has been seriously injured in three decades, said White Bird spokesman Tim Black.

"It’s been our experience that just the fact that we are showing up instead of police can really go a long way to de-escalate a situation and get that buy-in from the patients we’re trying to serve," Black said in a previous interview. 

Black said that precisely because the clinical staff at White Bird do not carry weapons, they arrive at a scene with a "different skill set and different resources," which means that the outcomes will be different, too.

In 2019, the CAHOOTS teams answered 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume. The program saves the city an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually, according to the clinic.

A similar idea in Oakland has been percolating since before Floyd's death.

The Oakland City Council in 2019 had already been looking at a civilian response to many types of calls in Oakland, which often call out for mental health and crisis support -- not arrests -- supporters said.

Police reform activist Anne Janks said that the city has already budgeted $1.8 million for the first pilot year to staff a mobile crisis unit to serve neighborhoods in East and West Oakland.

"The goal would be to solve the problem for the next two hours," Janks said in a previous interview. "What can we do right now? Have a conversation. Smoke a cigarette. Find out why they’re upset. How can we help you find the solution? When you do that, you can usually get someone to settle down."

MACRO was supposed to have launched in January.  But the Chronicle reported last month there was internal politics over which nonprofit should run MACRO and the two community organizations that were vying for the contract bowed out.

Many cities across the United States are turning to this type of non-police, mental health response model.

There are efforts underway in cities such as Olympia, Wash., Portland, Oregon, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

San Francisco began a pilot of the Street Crisis Response Team in November. It's a partnership with the the San Francisco Fire Department, the Department of Health and the Department of Emergency Management. The San Francisco police department also assists in transferring the 911 calls to this team. 

The Oakland police union did not respond for comment on whether it supported this idea.

But Zac Unger, president of the Oakland firefighters union, said he was behind the partnership. 

He explained that the program will be run through the fire department, but it will not be administered by firefighters.

The city will hire the proper medical and mental health staff, who will have their own uniforms and directives. He said the relationship would be much like it is with the Office of Emergency Service and fire prevention inspectors, which also run out of the fire department, but also have their own independence. 

Unger said it's likely EMTs and mental health counselors would be riding together in their own vehicle and they would not be riding on fire trucks. 

"Any way the fire department can provide services to citizens is a good idea," he said. "We're excited about making this work." 

As for why the city is looking to team up with the fire department?

Unger said: "They’re looking for cultural competency and a strong brand in the community. We go into every kind of neighborhood and demographic. Our logo carries a certain amount of trust." 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez.