Oakland to launch alternative response program for nonviolent 911 calls

Following successful alternative policing programs in Denver and Newark, Oakland, California is the latest city to adopt such a program with an initiative to redirect nonviolent, noncriminal calls to mobile teams of civilians. 

Projected to launch this fall, the program is called Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO. The program will operate under the fire department, but teams will be composed of civilians. Oakland’s program is unique because while other cities have trained social workers on the scene, residents in the city were clear they thought a group of community members with shared life experiences could provide the most beneficial services for the city.

Each team will include at least a civilian emergency medical technician paired with someone with first-hand knowledge of the mental health, criminal justice, homeless, or drug treatment systems.

The role of MACRO teams will be to deescalate a situation, check vitals, and potentially connect the individual with services in the city outside of jails and psychiatric wards. 

Some social workers acknowledge that it is unconventional to staff a response team without a trained mental health professional, but Sarah Butts, director of public policy for the National Association of Social Workers tells NPR that trying out different alternative policing strategies is the most effective way to root out what works best for each city. 

The overall aim of alternative policing programs is to reduce potentially violent interactions between police and citizens. One study estimates that individuals with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police than other civilians. Redirecting nonviolent calls ensures that individuals with mental illnesses are getting the support and resources they need while police attention can be focused on criminal calls. 

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