© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Don't want to call the cops? In Oakland, you can call MACRO (Pt. 1)

MACRO staff (from left to right) Josh Hayes, Destiny 'Tiny' Riley and Tony Tran pose with a rig
Wren Farrell
/
KALW
MACRO staff (from left to right) Josh Hayes, Destiny 'Tiny' Riley and Tony Tran pose with a rig

Since a so-called ‘racial reckoning’ started spreading across the nation following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, cities all over the country had to figure out what to do, as more and more people demanded that their governments defund and even dismantle the police.

But, there are a lot of decisions that need to be made when you’re creating alternatives to police: from how citizens can contact non-police responders, to what powers those responders have, to who’s paying for all of it.

This week, we’re taking a look at the MACRO — Oakland’s non-police response team. They’ve been up and running since April of 2022, but what are they actually doing? How do they differ from police, firefighters and paramedics? Is the program working?

I’m sitting in the back of a Black Dodge Chrysler minivan, not far from Oakland’s Mosswood Park.

"Let us approach just so make sure everything's cool and we'll go from there."

I’m tagging along with one of the teams from MACRO or the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland. They’re Oakland’s non-police response team, which means they answer non-violent, non-emergency calls to 911.

Today, they’re responding to a complaint about a guy who was hanging out outside of somebody’s house.

"He was on they porch. You know, you can't be on people's porch, right?" Mike asks.

"Sure, sure," the man says.

When we get there, the man is actually sitting on the sidewalk, outside a large blue Victorian house.

"You have any medical problems or any interest–"

This is Rick Fitzsimmons, he’s an EMT with MACRO.

"Nah, man, I’m smoking a cigarette, I'm cool."

Rick tries again: "Okay man, you don't need to go to a hospital or nothing?"

"Nah, man."

"Ok, you feel alright?"

No one on the team knows who complained about this man.

"Check it out man, I want you to drink that water, cause you sitting in the sun and drinking."

"I know that, it’s cool."

Whoever called might have wanted MACRO to tell him to pick up his stuff and move along, but that’s not what MACRO does. They don’t have the authority to move someone along, they’re more like social workers than law enforcement.

Their job is to deal with situations that aren’t necessarily suited for police or firefighters. This means that they end up working with a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness, mental health and substance abuse issues.

"Alright so you can’t be here too much longer man, they gone be calling on you."

"No doubt, no doubt."

"Appreciate you, bro."

"Pleasure homie."

"Yeah, we'll check on you later, huh?"

He says he doesn’t need anything, so we leave.

MACRO was modeled after a successful program in Eugene, Oregon called CAHOOTS: Crisis Assistance for Helping Out On The Streets. They’ve been around for more than 30 years and respond to almost twenty percent of their city’s 911 calls.

In 2019, CAHOOTS organizers presented to Oakland’s City Council about their program. Then, in the summer of 2020 when a series of police killings sparked nationwide protests, many Oakland residents began calling to defund the police and fund other community services instead, including MACRO.

“Oakland PD needs to be defunded and dismantled."

"We know that the only way to reduce police violence is to reduce the scope, size, and role of OPD in our community."

"Macro will help to shift the over-policing and over-criminalization of black and brown communities.”

So, in June of 2020, the Oakland City Council voted to fund a non-police response program. By April of 2022, MACRO was up and running.

"MACRO was created to have a more humane and just response to folks in mental health crisis and more humane and just response to folks that are unhoused."

This is Cat Brooks, she’s the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Police Terror Project, an abolitionist group that has been advocating for alternatives to policing and the carceral system for over a decade. She says her group trained the MACRO staff on how to respond to emergencies in a way that doesn’t just recreate what the police do.

"We already do the inhumane thing. You know, the people are still calling the police, right? It's not just about a shift in bodies. It's a shift in how we think about our community members that are in crisis," says Brooks.

****

"MACRO 3, Oakland fire."

It’s nearing the end of their work day when another call comes in.

"Go ahead for Macro 3."

"Are you still available to take a call?" Asks a dispatcher.

"Affirm."

"This lady calls for this man all the time. He's the guy who supposedly has maggots on wounds on his feet."

Maggots, on wounds on his feet.

"MACRO has gone and talked to him multiple times and he always refuses service."

Rick chimes in: "Yeah, last night I guess a rig and fire responded on him and he AMA'd."

AMA stands for against medical advice, it’s a form a medical professional can ask you to sign if you refuse their services.

"Yeah he never wants to go, he doesn’t want to go. Um, but they’re requesting that MACRO go and talk to him."

"Okay, copy that."

It’s a quick drive to the Temescal neighborhood. When we get there, a woman’s waiting for us. This is Phoebe Rossiter, she’s the person who called for MACRO.

"Yeah, hi that’s our client right there," she says.

"Yeah, we know all about him."

"Oh, oh, awesome."

Phoebe works for the street outreach team of Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless.

"Okay, so we've been to him like four times this week."

"Can we 5150 him?" Phoebe asks.

"I’m gonna, I’m gonna - we can't, that's a law enforcement thing."

A 5150 is when someone is involuntarily detained in a mental health facility.

"You guys are awesome, but I'm looking for a 5150."

"Right, and we're not able to write that."

"Yeah."

That’s the thing about MACRO, they’re not law enforcement, and they’re not mental health professionals. But those limits make it easier for some people to trust them.

Phoebe leaves, and Rick goes up to the man.

"Remember me from the other day?"

"Yeah, man. He bring me a cigarette…"

The guy we’re here for is slumped over in a wheelchair. His injured leg is sticking out, but his pants are pulled down over the wound. He keeps nodding in and out while Rick tries to talk to him.

"So what do you think man, do you want to go to the hospital yet or no? I heard last night–"

"I just wanted a cigarette, you know I’m the one that called this situation."

"Why are your pants off?"

"Because…" He starts to get upset.

Rick pleads with him to go to the hospital, but the man says no, not today. And so, after 15 minutes, we leave. When we get in the car, Rick seems frustrated. What do you do when the person you’re trying to help doesn’t want to be helped?

"And he said, I'll go tomorrow. I'll go tomorrow. Every tomorrow turns into another tomorrow. It's sad because the end result is gonna be death or he's gonna lose his leg. But at the same time, we can't make him go. Sometimes I wish we could, because he needs to go. I want him to live, right? But at the same time, if we're showing empathy and care and all that, well then we shouldn't be able to force anybody."

Rick says he’s gonna start checking on this guy every day.

"We're going to start bugging the crap out of him and not even wait to be called to him. And just be a thorn in his side. And maybe one of these days he'll just go, all right, I'll go, that's all we can do."

Rick says that’s part of the job: continuing to show up until someone wants his help. Later this week, we’ll hear what happens when someone does accept MACRO’s help. And tomorrow, we’ll hear why it’s been difficult for Oakland residents to even get in touch with a MACRO team.

Copyright 2023 KALW

Wren Farrell (he/him) is a writer, producer and journalist living in San Francisco.