Creation of Non-Police Mental Health Crisis Response Takes Step Forward

Oakland stepped closer Tuesday toward a program for mental health crisis response that does not involve police.

City councilmembers voted unanimously Tuesday to place the civilian response program in the Oakland Fire Department and to do it quickly.

The program is called MACRO and is an acronym for Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland. The next step is a progress report from city staff to the City Council on April 20 and monthly reports thereafter.

MACRO, which will be in a pilot phase for a year, will first be implemented in East Oakland where civilian responders will be deployed to mental health calls rather than police.

"Kudos to our City Council for unanimously passing a plan for our Fire Department to create a new, non-police unit for mental health crisis calls," Mayor Libby Schaaf said on Twitter Wednesday morning.

Schaaf said that it's necessary, long overdue and puts Oakland "on a path to truly reimagine public safety."

Many in the community say that a badge and a gun is a poor response to a mental health crisis and even police don't like to respond to mental health calls. People suffering from a mental health crisis are sometimes shot and killed by police officers when they respond to the crisis.

"This alternative program will show that we can improve community safety and save lives, while allowing OPD (police) to focus on and improve response times to the most urgent calls for service such as homicides and gun violence," Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said in a statement.

"On days like this we must remember Miles Hall, Angelo Quinto, Joshua Pawlik, and so many more who were murdered in the middle of a mental health crisis," said Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police Terror-Project, a Black-led, multi-racial, intergenerational coalition to eliminate police terror in communities of color. "This is not an Oakland problem, it's a national problem," Brooks added.

Under MACRO, civilian responders rather than police would also respond to other non-violent crisis calls in addition to mental health calls.

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan said the program will address "vital health needs" in Oakland.

The City Council directed City Administrator Ed Reiskin to quickly begin the one-year MACRO pilot program.

Councilmembers want the city to hire mental health specialists and EMTs through a contract with Alameda County.

The council told Reiskin to return on April 20 with any legislation needed to allocate money for a full-time person to manage MACRO, provide progress reports monthly and to recommend other categories of calls for service that civilian responders with MACRO might handle besides mental health calls. Reiskin also must hire an independent consultant to evaluate the program's pilot phase.

City officials have said that people hired as civilian responders will be part of a labor union.

Responders may be hired in the beginning as temporary workers to get the program started more quickly than it would if permanent employees were hired. At least one labor union supports the program.

"Establishing the MACRO program is an important step forward for Oakland," said Yeon Park, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 vice president for the East Bay. "Working with the community to build this program in-house, with good union jobs, shows the City of Oakland is committed to community safety and providing it in a transparent, equitable way," she said.

Some labor and community leaders say that Schaaf and city staff are taking too long to implement the pilot program.

The same labor and community leaders say that the workers hired as responders can be trained through the Mental Health First program, established by the Anti Police-Terror Project, which already provides the same kind of service in Oakland.

That program will continue even if the MACRO program begins, Brooks said.

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