The Oakland City Council in California is expected to finalize approval today for a pilot program that would replace police with trained civilian responders for a host of 911 calls that often involve people struggling with mental health issues and homelessness, reports The Appeal. The year-long pilot called MACRO—Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland—is still in its infancy. MACRO will function as a police-free program within the Oakland Fire Department. It will be staffed by two-person teams of emergency medical technicians and trained community members who advocates say are more equipped to respond to 911 calls about matters like public urination, erratic behavior and welfare checks. Due to Oakland’s ongoing pandemic budget crisis, the $1.85 million in MACRO funding is far smaller than the original vision, which was outlined in a report by the Urban Strategies Council and called for $3.09 million to employ 24 people. But City Council members say this new pilot is an important part of Oakland’s goal of reducing the over $300 million police department budget by 50 percent.
The program has been placed under the umbrella of the fire department, a move that city officials say will help ensure that the program is sustainable and not “dumped” at a later stage, but that also adds a layer of bureaucracy and liability concerns that threaten to make implementing the pilot more complex. Another outstanding issue is exactly how many of the over 240,000 annual 911 calls to the police will be transferred to MACRO responders once the program is running or expanded. One study of 911 calls from eight cities found that up to 38 percent of the calls can be handled by community response teams. But a report commissioned by the city identified only 7.5 percent of local 911 calls eligible for a non-police response and many of those calls, including traffic accidents, likely will not fall under MACRO’s jurisdiction.