The new program aims to improve the treatment of individuals going through mental health crises in Oakland

By Leah Harris

On March 23, Oakland moved closer towards implementing a pilot program for mental health crisis response that does not involve law enforcement. The program has been named Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO. By a unanimous vote of the Oakland City Council, the city will quickly house the crisis response program within the Oakland Fire Department. In its one-year pilot phase, MACRO will operate within East Oakland.

A March 15 memorandum from the Oakland Fire Department to the Oakland Mayor and City Council cited ongoing “significant racial disparities” as a justification for the MACRO program. The demonstrated impact of racial inequities includes the overrepresentation of Black residents among the unhoused, as well as those receiving emergency services for mental health and substance use challenges in Oakland. 

The MACRO program is based on providing voluntary help, with the aim of immediate connection to care and a range of options beyond involuntary 51-50 holds, including “a safe place determined by the person in crisis, such as their own home or that of a loved one.” Utilizing a collaborative model, “transportation and follow-up would be voluntary and next steps will be determined in consultation with the individual in crisis,” the memorandum stated.

Unlike many “co-responder” models composed of clinicians responding with police, MACRO civilian responders, trained in de-escalation and harm reduction approaches, “will be recruited from the neighborhoods they serve,” according to a statement from the Coalition for Police Accountability. 

Community organizers and activists have applauded the MACRO program, in particular the meaningful involvement and leadership of neighbors in its implementation. Cathy Leonard, spokesperson for the Coalition for Police Accountability, stated, “There are so many emergency calls that do not require a badge and a gun. Our neighbors will be safer and offered connections to resources and referrals, knowing that any solution will be one they help to develop. Community members continue to be excited about the pilot and are already pulling together meetings in pilot neighborhoods to make sure neighbors are involved in implementation from the beginning.” If you live in Oakland and wish to get involved in the rollout of MACRO in your community, you can connect with the Coalition here.

In especially hopeful news, the MACRO program has plans to hire peer works as part of the civilian response team. “By employing the EMT-Crisis Support Specialist team matched with a Community Resource Specialist, MACRO provides an opportunity for hiring peer professionals, like credible messengers or community navigators, as community responders trained to respond, de-escalate, and support individuals in need,” the memorandum said.

If you’re interested in being trained as a civilian responder, free ongoing first responder trainings are available online with Mental Health First, which provides a free hotline on the weekend for those requiring mental health crisis support. The next training will take place on April 11th. 

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Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.