Oakland launches civilian crisis response team to handle nonviolent mental health calls

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- The City of Oakland is taking a big step forward in reimagining public safety. The Oakland City Council unanimously greenlit a new program that will send civilians with medical and mental health training to respond to non-violent emergency calls in East Oakland instead of police.

The MACRO civilian crisis response program will soon launch in East Oakland.

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The Oakland City council voted in favor of the creation of the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland during a ten-hour meeting Tuesday night.

The creation of the crisis response team means that police officers with badges and guns will no longer respond to non-violent 911 calls for help involving a mental health crisis.

"A large number of 911 calls that get sent to police involve non-violent matters that would be better handled by trained civilians who have expertise in mental health and related matters," said Oakland Vice Mayor and At-large Council Member Rebecca Kaplan.

Kaplan, one of the first city council members to propose the idea, voted in favor of it along with the rest of the council.

The measure passed calls for the city administrator to expedite the implementation of the one-year pilot program.

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Kaplan tells ABC7 News MACRO should be running by the summer months.

"It doesn't have to be a choice between an ineffective response and no response at all. But rather that we should have trained civilian responders who can be available for mental health episodes and other nonviolent situations," said Kaplan.

Mental health experts and EMTs from Alameda County will be contracted to fill the civilian responder positions.

The Oakland Fire Department will run the program using the existing 911 dispatch system.

The Oakland Police Department would then be freed up to respond more quickly to urgent 911 calls for help, potentially improving lagging response times.

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"It means a less violent Oakland," said Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project.

Brooks has seen the work in action firsthand. She launched the community-led crisis response program Mental Health First last summer.

Mental Health First provides free mental health support from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Friday and Saturday by calling 510-999-9MH1 when other non-police options are unavailable.

The Oakland program is connected to a sister program in Sacramento.

Brooks sees the creation of MACRO is a step towards fewer, dangerous interactions with police over mental health episodes.

"This is wrapping our arms around the folks in our community who are in the most need. That is going to have a ripple effect to what our neighborhoods look, what our communities, and what our families look like," said Brooks.

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The Anti-Police Terror Project launched the movement to Defund OPD five years ago when 2015 marked a particularly deadly year for police shootings of Black men in Oakland.

"It's a step towards a world where we don't craft public safety out of violence. We craft it out of community care and holistic and loving resources and support," said Brooks.

If the one-year pilot in East Oakland is successful, it will then be expanded to zones in Fruitvale and eventually West Oakland.

The program will bring on five pairs of civilian responders. Each team will include one medical technician and one mental health professional.

The teams will be staffed to respond to urgent calls 24/7.

This step towards reimagining public safety comes as community-led political organization Oakland Rising released the results of a community survey on public safety.

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The text-based survey from February 3-27 asked 1,100 Oakland residents if 50% of OPD's budget should be reallocated to reimagine public safety in Black and brown communities.

The majority agreed.

"65% of the people say yes," said liz suk, executive director of Oakland Rising. "We've been talking about reimagining public safety for a while now...it really goes to show that people really want to know what that looks like."

62% of people completing the entire survey identified as BIPOC, while 37% identified as White.

The City of Oakland will start bringing on responders for MACRO after a manager for the program is hired and funds are allocated following the city's April council meeting.

Similar programs have successfully been implemented in Olympia, WA, Portland, OR, and Albuquerque, NM.

Kaplan, Brooks, and suk all agree MACRO's creation is a win for public safety in Oakland, but remain skeptical of its implementation by the city administration.

"I think we have to be on our toes. And that's not because the fire department, that's because of the dysfunction of the City of Oakland," said Brooks.

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