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Is Oakland's Community Response Team a Successful Alternative to Police?

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A person with a bald head looks out the driver's side window of a car from the passenger seat.
Community Intervention Specialist Michael Thompson of the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) is seen inside the van after speaking with an unhoused person outside the Oakland Public Library in Oakland on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. MACRO deploys their team members for non-emergent 911 calls in Oakland. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Jazz Armas and Michael Thompson discussed whether they would know the man yelling at people as they drove to Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland in late October.

“I wonder if it’s Joshua,” Armas said as she pulled the van into the plaza just before noon.

Armas and Thompson saw Joshua lying on a bench in front of City Hall. After speaking with him, it became clear to them he wasn’t the person causing a disturbance. Armas handed Joshua a couple of bottles of water.

Then, a hollering came from across the plaza. “That’s our guy,” Armas said.

Armas and Thompson walked over to the man and asked if he was interested in resources to find housing. He wasn’t in the mood for assistance.

“He wanted to wrestle,” Thompson said, back in the van. “And I do not wanna wrestle.”


Armas and Thompson are part of Oakland’s fledgling civilian response team, the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO. They had responded to an email referral at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

For more than a decade, residents, activists, community groups and coalitions in Oakland have been asking for an alternative to law enforcement for situations where advocates say an armed response is neither necessary nor ideal. The killing of Joshua Pawlik, whom Oakland police officers fatally shot in March 2018, heightened demands. Pawlik, an unhoused person who was armed and apparently unconscious in a small space between two homes, was awakened by officers. As he stirred, police shot him 22 times.

MACRO was launched in April 2022 to divert some non-emergency 911 calls away from police. MACRO is part of the Oakland Fire Department, and teams usually have one responder trained in de-escalation and one EMT. MACRO can respond to non-violent and non-criminal situations, such as an unarmed person reportedly yelling but not threatening violence or someone sleeping in the doorway of a business.

A group of men speak outside of a vehicle.
At MACRO’s headquarters, Elliott Jones, center, speaks with responders Tony Tran, left, and Raul Cedeno III as they end their shift on Sept. 19, 2023. (Nik Altenberg/KQED)

MACRO completed its 18-month pilot period in October and is expected to more than double its staff early this year, according to Elliott Jones, the program’s manager. Oakland’s 2023-25 budget includes funding for 42 positions for MACRO responders. KQED spent several weeks reporting on MACRO, including riding along with Armas and Thompson as they responded to calls in West Oakland, North Oakland and downtown.

There were only 11 responders on staff in early December. The low number means that some days, there is only one MACRO team covering the entire city. For six days in October, MACRO was “out of service for internal work,” Jones wrote in an email to a KQED reporter.

MACRO teams work seven days a week, starting at 6:30 a.m. and typically finishing at 1:45 p.m. Depending on staffing, MACRO will provide service until 10 p.m. up to three days a week.

According to a report commissioned by the Oakland City Council in 2019 on the feasibility of implementing a mobile crisis intervention pilot modeled after a program in Eugene, Oregon, MACRO was envisioned as a 24-hour service. Jones said he has no timeline for when that may be possible.

Critics say the program isn’t taking shape as expected and that it isn’t taking enough 911 calls. According to Armas, the number of calls transferred from 911 dispatch tend to “ramp up” after 6 p.m.

“On our swing shifts, when we work late ‘til like 9 or 10, it tends to be mostly dispatch calls,” she said. “It can get a little messy.”

Armas expressed some doubt about an overnight shift, saying that responders would be ineffective at outreach.

“We’re not going to walk through Snow Park to see if anybody needs help at 9 o’clock, right, but we can do it right now,” she said, referring to the grassy area on Lakeside Drive near Lake Merritt.

MACRO responders don’t respond to domestic violence-related calls, crimes in progress or enter homes. Responders are also not supposed to handle calls where an individual is reportedly threatening violence or is armed. But once on scene, it is largely up to the responders’ discretion when a situation crosses the line.

A homeless encampment is seen through the windshield of a car.
Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) EMT Jazziree Armas drives down Wood Street to canvas the area for people in need in Oakland on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. When canvassing, MACRO team members look for unhoused individuals they’ve met previously to continue building relationships in the hopes that they will accept any offered help. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

If someone has a knife, “we aren’t necessarily automatically threatened — unless they’re ready to use it,” said Armas, who grew up in East Oakland. “We have had knives pulled on us. One of my partners had a boxcutter on his neck.”

That’s when it’s time to call the police, Armas said.

“If the situation does, you know, go outside of our scope, it’s very important to know when something’s not your job,” she said.

Responders sometimes call the police or a county mental health team for backup or to take over. Thompson described the man at Frank Ogawa Plaza as agitated and “not in a shared reality.”

It was “one of those in-between mental health concern calls where it doesn’t meet the high enough priority for us to call police,” Armas said.

For responders to be able to further address the situation, Armas said, people “have to be cooperative, they have to want and accept help.”

Dispatching Calls to MACRO

At the Oakland police 911 call center, dispatchers have been trained to forward a specific list of call types to MACRO, like disorderly juveniles or public indecency. When a call may be appropriate for MACRO but “does not quite fit the established criteria, the dispatcher will call MACRO to see if they are able to handle the call,” said Paul Chambers, a spokesman for the Oakland Police Department.

Dispatchers started transferring calls to MACRO in August 2022. Jones said he may have underestimated how much it would take to coordinate getting calls routed to MACRO.

Two people en black shirts engage with a third unseen person sitting on a city sidewalk.
Community Intervention Specialist Michael Thompson (left) and EMT Jazziree Armas (right) of the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) speak with an unhoused person in Oakland on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

“If I could do one thing over again, I would have started with dispatch,” he said. “I would have really made it a point early on in the program to get dispatch totally bought in and onboard.”

Incorporating MACRO into the 911 dispatch center happened at a challenging time. Response times to 911 calls in Oakland have been the subject of multiple grand jury reports, and California could revoke the city’s right to field 911 calls if response times don’t improve by July. In September, Oakland leaders dedicated $2.5 million to hire more dispatchers and improve the center’s efficiency. On Dec. 5, KTVU reported that hundreds of dispatcher applications had been ignored since 2022, leading to long hiring gaps.

Before 911 calls were routed to MACRO, the majority of responders’ work was outreach work, primarily by driving around looking for people who needed assistance or situations that could escalate to calling the police. Responders were also receiving email requests from residents. Data show that since starting to receive 911 referrals, outreach remains a central part of responders’ work.

Armas said the outreach work is something she’s proud of, and it’s something Oakland needs. One day, while doing a wellness check, responders found an individual with an infected leg wound from being shot three days before.

“They weren’t looking for help, and nobody was looking for them,” Armas said.

Another time, Armas went to check on a person lying face down on a mattress near International Boulevard and Fifth Avenue.

“We go to try to wake him, and there was no response,” Armas said of the man who was dead. “We find a lot of stuff that nobody was even looking for.”

Critics say the outreach work is not what MACRO was designed to be doing.

Outreach to an unhoused person or receiving a request via email is “usually a situation that a police officer would never have been sent to begin with,” said Millie Cleveland, a member of MACRO’s advisory board who noted that residents requested a phone number for MACRO, not an email address. “The goal of MACRO is to take calls from the 911 system.”

A person types into a laptop from the passenger seat of a car.
Community Intervention Specialist Michael Thompson of The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) fills out a report after responding to a call at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Jones said getting the phone line set up isn’t a simple task, in part because it will require training fire department dispatchers on how to evaluate and assign incoming calls. All 911 calls go to the police dispatch center first. Calls appropriate for MACRO are routed to a fire dispatcher, who assigns it to a MACRO team.

Jones said he expects to have the number up and running early this year, which would take some pressure off the police dispatch center. A lot of people have stopped calling 911 for help with the types of calls MACRO would be able to take, according to Armas. She said she believes Oakland police often don’t have the capacity to respond to non-violent crimes.

“They’re not going to call because they know no one’s coming,” she said. “We also have to establish that now there is someone to call.”

After the 2019 feasibility report, the city council voted in 2020 to move forward with the program. After a failed shot at finding a contractor to run the program, in 2021 the city council moved to place the program in the fire department and expedite its launch.

Jones, an Oakland native, felt the time crunch when he was hired.

“Everything with MACRO happened so fast. I think that there was this desire from the community for everything to be here almost immediately,” he said. “My second day on the job, I was asked to come to public safety committee, and one of the first questions was, ‘Well, when is the program launching?’”

Jones said Edward Reiskin, Oakland’s former city administrator, gave him a tight timeline.

“I remember being in a meeting and offering a couple of dates and him being like, ‘Nope, nope, we need this sooner,’” Jones said.

Almost immediately after launching, residents and city leaders were asking about expansion, according to Jones. MACRO launched as an 18-month pilot program in two high-needs areas, West Oakland and deep East Oakland. After three months, MACRO expanded to cover the whole city.

“Our team had the capability and the capacity to serve the city, the entire city,” Jones said. “So we quickly expanded to that, and council was supportive.”

From July to October 2023, MACRO teams recorded the most responses in downtown Oakland.

“If our businesses are calling, then we need to make sure that they’re being served because if we lose that tax revenue, that tax base, then the entire city would suffer,” said Oakland City Councilmember Carroll Fife, whose district includes downtown, West Oakland and Chinatown. “So that’s what I’m advocating for in terms of prioritization. But, you know, we have to figure out how to do that and how to do that equitably.”

The needs vary in different parts of the city, Armas said.

“Further east, we don’t get calls of, you know, people kinda just existing,” she said. “We get more mental health crises, trespassing, indecent exposures, public intoxication, disorderly juveniles.”

Thompson said sometimes people may be using MACRO responders to essentially shoo homeless people away. “It can border on the line of you want us to come and make them go away,” he added.

Another email referral Armas and Thompson responded to in October was at the Golden Gate Branch of the Oakland Public Library on San Pablo Avenue. The request was a wellness check for a homeless woman who had bathed in the bathroom and then moved to the sidewalk in front of the library.

When they arrived, the woman brushed her wet hair with a comb. A few tote bags and suitcases were stacked beside her. She declined their help.

“She is not up to engaging,” Armas said. “But she’s OK.”

“But she’s OK,” Thompson repeated. “And it’s not illegal to be homeless.”


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