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Oakland City Council pulls $18 million from proposed police budget to fund violence prevention

Oakland police (Thomas R Machnitzki/WikiCommons)

A day after the Oakland City Council voted 6-2 to prevent an additional $18 million from going to the police department’s budget, proponents and critics of the action are still debating its ramifications.

The decision was a victory for council president Nikki Fortunato Bas, who swayed the majority of her council colleagues to amend Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed budget, which originally called for a bigger increase in police spending amid the surge of gun violence that has gripped the city.

In approving a $3.8 billion, two-year city budget, the council actually increased the police department’s spending by $9 million from $665 million to about $674 million, according to a staff report. As a result, the police department’s share of the budget will now be 18% instead of the current 20%.

But the amount approved was $18 million less than what Schaaf had proposed in the original budget she presented to the council.

“This is square one,” Councilwoman Sheng Thao said during the meeting. “We have to start somewhere. How do we make our community more safe?”

Oakland resident Leslie Landberg, however, told the council that the cost of a change of direction was too high. “Violent crimes will explode.”

After the vote, Schaaf — who did not weigh in during Thursday’s meeting — issued a statement criticizing the council’s action, saying the changes will “significantly reduce police staffing and delay response to Oaklanders in their time of crisis. It will force our officers to work even more overtime shifts, which are expensive and unsafe for officers and residents alike.

“I believe that until we have proven alternatives, we cannot destroy Oakland’s current public safety system at a time when we are losing so many to gun violence,” Schaaf said.

Oakland police have reported 60 homicides so far this year, almost twice as many as the 34 reported during the same period in 2020.

City Administrator Edward Reiskin said the adopted budget won’t “relieve the demand for police services,” and could result in a 12% reduction in police response to 9-1-1 calls.

“I believe from the caller’s perspective, (all) those calls are important,” Reiskin said.

Cathy Adams, president of the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

“This will lead to longer wait times for 9-1-1 calls, if they respond at all,” Adams said.

But supporters of the council’s decision contend police have not been improving public safety in recent years, and alternatives are needed to reduce violence.

“It seems as if we are throwing so much money at the police department, without any clear outcomes,” Oakland resident Cathy Leonard told the council.

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, which has been calling for a 50% reduction of the police department’s budget for several years, said Thursday’s decision was a win for the city.

“The initial demand was 50%. But we’ll take this $18 million because it was tied to a thoughtful process about where those dollars would go, that can actually get in front of crime instead of just responding to it,” she said in an interview Friday.

“It’s important for people to remember that as the spike of homicides happened last year and into this year, nobody was taking anything away from law enforcement. They were there doing exactly what it is they’re supposed to do,” Brooks said.

“But police are not violence interrupters, they are violence responders. And there are plenty of Oaklanders, me included, who are tired of burying people and want to start investing on the front end, and that’s what these dollars do,” she said.

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said Friday he thinks not adding to the number of the police officers in the city will only lead to more overtime spending, and less crime prevention.

“Businesses, employees, and the elderly in the community are suffering,” Chan said, referring to the dual crises faced by Asian Americans during the pandemic and a spike in anti-Asian violent crimes.

Chan said an increase in Chinatown police patrols over the past six months helped drive down the rate of violent incidents, and he thinks the department should focus on patrolling the city more often to deter crime.

“We’re not just making it up, ‘Oh, we want to see more police,’ we know that it is working,” Chan said.

He said he supports piloting violence prevention programs in Oakland, but doesn’t think they should be funded at the expense of police staffing.

The council voted 6-2 to adopt the budget with the Bas amendments. Councilmembers Loren Taylor and Treva Reid cast the no votes.

When introducing her budget amendments earlier this month, Bas said her goal was to spend a year ramping up a civilian crisis team that can respond to non-criminal, non-violent calls such as people experiencing mental health crises.

“I think this is a transition we are making,” Councilman Dan Kalb said. “It will be bumpy. It’s won’t be perfect. It’s not going to be rosy.”

The council earlier this year unanimously approved spending $1.8 million to pilot the so-called Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, or MACRO.

Schaaf’s budget proposed bolstering the amount for that program to $2.6 million, while Fortunato Bas’ amendments — crafted with a team that included council members Carroll Fife, Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb — will almost triple that sum to $6.2 million.

Brooks said the call to pull funding from policing and put it toward community supports will not stop.

“We have an amazing opportunity to continue to be the vanguard of what a progressive, 21st century, humanistic, moral response to our people is,” she said.


(c) 2021 the Contra Costa Times

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