Oakland (CA) OKs Shifting Some Disturbance Calls from Police to Fire Department

Oakland Fire Department
Photo/Oakland Fire Department

Rachel Swan

San Francisco Chronicle


The Oakland City Council voted Tuesday to create a new agency within the Fire Department to handle the behavioral calls that traditionally have fallen on police, for people intoxicated in the street, disturbing the peace or acting erratically.

Although it had unanimous support from the council members, the resolution and ordinance to start the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, known as MACRO, left many questions unanswered.

The resolution instructed City Administrator Ed Reiskin to “explore” options for a yearlong test run that would begin in East Oakland and later expand to West Oakland.

The mental health program, billed as a temporary pilot and originally set to begin in January, is part of a larger effort to redistribute police duties to civilians. Cities across the country began contemplating alternatives to armed law enforcement after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year, and Oakland leaders saw an opportunity to create a national model.

“I envision this will ultimately become a robust city agency within the Fire Department,” Council member Dan Kalb said, adding that the new agency could respond to a “range of calls for service,” and ultimately save money.

Interim Fire Chief Melinda Drayton and Ian Appleyard, the city’s director of human resources, highlighted the social benefits of the program in a memo to Reiskin, saying it could help connect people to longer-term and more effective care, including detox centers and residential rehabilitation facilities. But they also warned of complications.

Among them: The firefighters’ union contract precludes employees from responding to calls for “5150 incidents,” the legal code for a mental health hold. Additionally, state law prevents the Oakland Fire Department from transporting patients during medical emergencies.

The memo also listed an array of new equipment the department would need to launch the program, and cited safety concerns, given the “alarming rise” of homicides and violence in the city.

Several council members insisted the city would not follow its original plan to hire nonprofit community organizations to run MACRO. Reiskin and City Council member Rebecca Kaplan suggested trying to partner with the county, which “does to some extent have infrastructure to support this kind of response already.”

He said a collaboration with the county might be “the most expeditious path for us to go,” but acknowledged that Oakland officials had only broached the subject in one preliminary conversation with their Alameda County counterparts.

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rswan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rachelswan

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