Launched earlier this month, Oakland's Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program has responded to specific 911 calls — many of which are related to non-violent emergencies like mental health issues, wellness checks, and panhandling — helping to de-escalate crises without the need for police.

On average, Oaklanders make about 2,000 emergency calls each day, though many of those requests don't necessarily require a police response. In fact, as it pertains to non-violent mental health emergencies, the presence of armed police can inadvertently worsen an incident. Mental health experts describe that the overstimulating nature of sirens, visible firearms, and, unfortunately, the use of improper language/de-escalating techniques can cause an individual experiencing a mental health crisis to act less rational than they otherwise would if the situation was addressed appropriately.

Similar to San Francisco's Street Crisis Responses Team (SCRT) — which began operating in November of 2020 to address particular non-violent, non-life-threatening emergencies — Oakland's MACRO pilot program is aiming to change how some 911 emergency calls are handled, helping both ease pressure off police and better address certain types of emergencies.

MACRO doesn't approach each case and call under a monolith of decision making; its team members, instead, opt to "meet people where they are" in order to individualize help and better the odds of successfully mitigating the problem.

“We are [required] to meet people where they are and display empathy to find out what is going on with them,” said Elliott Jones, the MACRO manager, to the Chronicle. MACRO vehicles respond to each call with well-trained Emergency Community Responders and EMTs who use de-escalation and trauma-informed tools. However, in calls describing active suicide attempts, the presence of police and medical first-responders is summoned to offer life-saving aid in the event that self-harm behaviors are carried out.

“We want to offer them some sort of service whether it’s a soda or some water, a piece of chocolate, blanket or some socks," Jones — who bylined a handful of op-eds for SFist back in 2020 — adds to the newspaper. Like SCRT, MACRO seeks to offer connection to housing and treatment options, if the individual requests it.

The Chronicle reports that MACRO crews initially check with the Alameda County CARES Navigation Center in Oakland, which runs Community Assessment, Referral, and Engagement Services — a program overseen by the District Attorney’s Office that offers temporary shelter options. The facility also gives criminal diversion services if someone has a warrant and needs help.

Jones states this suggestive, but not forceful outreach strategy is a key part of the job is building both trust and relationships with individuals so that people will come to MACRO when they’re ready for help at any point: "If eventually, you decide you want service, you want to get off the streets, you want help, then ... we will connect you to services in Alameda County."

Adding to the effectiveness of MACRO’s techniques is the fact that most of its crews are made up of Oakland natives; some team members used to be unhoused or were formerly incarcerated, themselves; a current member of the team once managed mobile showers for the homeless in SF.

“We hit the jackpot," Jones continued to the Chronicle, noting that this lived-line of empathy helps MACRO teams better understand those they're helping, all while comprehending the mental gymnastics often required when tending to an individual who has fallen through a social safety net — "we found great people that love Oakland."

Both MACRO and SCRT are programs that have taken cues from the mental health crisis intervention program out of Eugene, Oregon, aptly named Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS). Modeling their intervention techniques via advice from mental health professionals, CAHOOTS, which was incepted over 31 years ago, has helped divert 5% to 8% of received emergency calls to the Eugene Police Department on an annual basis.

Oakland City leaders and the Oakland Police Department have backed the 18-month pilot program, costing almost $16M to fund. Should the initiative prove successful, Oakland City Council members could vote to make the program permanent.

Given the resounding success of like-modeled programs have had in other cities across the country, it's a favorable outcome that might well be on the horizon.

Related: Op-Ed: Some Homeless People Prefer the Street to 'Jail Lite' Rules at Hotel Shelters

Photo: Courtesy of Twitter via @PavePrevention