Oakland has a non-police crisis response team, but when do they get the call? (Pt. 2)
MACRO was formed in 2022 as an alternative to cops for non-emergency, non-violent 911 calls. But deciding when they should be deployed hasnt been consistent.
This story was made for audio broadcast. Click the play button above to listen if you’re able.
"Oakland Fire MACRO 2."
It’s eight in the morning and I’m in the back of a MACRO van — what they call a rig — driving through East Oakland.
"In service, MCC, we can take that pending call."
That’s Josh Hayes, he’s a Community Intervention Specialist at MACRO and he’s driving the rig today.
"It's going to be Flora and Havenscourt for a naked woman walking on Flora, entry number 81208."
The first call they get today is from the Oakland Police Department, about a naked woman walking down the street in East Oakland.
"Copy. You can show us en route."
This is a typical MACRO call. They work with a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness and/or suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.
But when we get to Flora & Havenscourt, the street is empty.
"Alright, we’ll do the strip at International and then call it." Hayes says.
"The thing about like, calls like this is they might have come in hours ago."
This is JJ Barral, he’s another Community Intervention Specialist at MACRO.
"If she's walking in the street and moving, it's hard to find somebody who's moving."
So, how does someone get in touch with MACRO? They don’t have a direct phone number right now, but they do have an email. Or, you can reach them through 911. Let’s say you see someone — like this woman — who seems to be in distress, but isn’t violent or in immediate danger. First, you call 911. An Oakland Police Dispatcher answers and decides whether the call is appropriate for MACRO. Then they send it to the Oakland Fire Department, who has to agree that yes, it’s a good call for MACRO. (MACRO, by the way, is housed within the fire department.) Once both dispatchers agree, then they radio MACRO.
It hasn’t always been smooth though.
"In the early days of this program for months and months and months, dispatch hadn't all been trained up yet on our process. So we weren't getting those calls," Hayes says.
Once Oakland dispatchers got trained, calls started coming in. But there were still training and communication issues.
"By the time we play that game of telephone small details have changed."
For one, dispatchers were told that MACRO teams aren’t supposed to deal with violent calls, but the word violent can be interpreted differently. Like, the police got a call about a man experiencing mental health issues, who was screaming and throwing rocks. And the dispatcher didn’t send it to MACRO, because they deemed it a violent incident.
"And when I heard that call, I was like, ‘Well, what's he throwing rocks at? A bush in a lake? Is he throwing a million rocks? Is he throwing bricks?’ Like, we would totally take that call."
There was also confusion about what MACRO can and can’t do. Initially, Oakland dispatchers were told that, for their safety, MACRO teams aren’t allowed to respond to incidents inside of buildings, but this changed as the program developed.
"We started to kind of bend the rules of it. We started with the libraries and businesses and we get called to, you know, coffee shops. And things like that," says Hayes.
But these changes have been hard for other city departments to keep up with.
A few days after riding with MACRO, I went to visit the Oakland Fire Department’s call center, which is where they dispatch calls from 911.
"We don't have good policies on what they respond to exactly."
This is Ben Nicolls, he’s a supervisor at the dispatch center. It looks kind of like a mission control room.
"When MACRO first got here, we were told MACRO doesn't respond inside of buildings. Or respond to potentially violent situations … To me, someone who is throwing things, that's — I'm not saying they're trying to hurt people or do anything like that — but that could be an act of violence. And we would say, no, we're not going to send MACRO. But then MACRO wants these calls now," says Nicolls.
It’s worth pointing out that Oakland emergency dispatch centers are extremely understaffed. While one of the goals of MACRO is to relieve some of the workload for emergency responder — cops, firefighters, and paramedics — the program has created even more work for emergency dispatchers. When I ask the dispatchers here about MACRO the conversation feels tense.
"We don’t have any policies or procedures."
That’s one of the fire dispatchers here in Oakland. She asked not to be named because she didn’t want to get in trouble at work.
"They weren't trained. We weren't trained. We don't know what they do and what they don't do. I don't think they know what they do and what they don't do. Our main concern is to make sure that the MACRO crew is safe and that the citizens are getting what they need."
This dispatcher says she doesn’t even know basic things about MACRO, like their direct email.
"The thing is, we're the communication center. They have not given us the email, right? I don't know what to tell … the citizens that call."
I was surprised when the dispatcher said this, because no one from MACRO had mentioned these issues.
But there’s a breakdown in communication happening somewhere along the chain. According to data released by MACRO, the number of referrals they’ve been getting from the Oakland Fire dispatchers has been low and inconsistent. In May of this year, they got 19 referrals from the fire department, in June it was only two, and in September it was eight.
"It is very much an evolving program and an evolving set of responsibilities that the dispatch center has had to take on over these 18 months."
This is Elliot Jones, the program manager for MACRO.
"I'm thankful that they have always done it, but it underscores the challenge of keeping everybody fresh and abreast of what's going on. And more of that to come, because MACRO’s not going anywhere, and we're going to still rely on their support."
Over the next few months, MACRO’s staff is expected to triple in size and by the end of the year their direct phone number is going to go live.
Until then, you can reach them by email: it’s MACRO@oaklandca.gov
This story first aired in the December 6 episode of Crosscurrents.