Oakland Defund-Refund-What Happened?

New Budget amid Dueling Narratives

The news media has been working overtime to devise a narrative on Oakland’s recent 2 year budget brouhaha. As soon as it passed, the dueling headlines began spinning so fast that anybody really paying attention got a bit dizzy as they swirled about us.

What’s the decision, what did we do? Sorry to tell you, it’s not as easy to define as many of our low information voters would like to hear. And when those of us on the left shared our memes to communicate our hopes to each other, we may have inadvertently contributed to the confusion and anxiety. Why did the Reimagine Task Force propose a 50% cut in police spending? Was that ever even possible? Did it make sense?

The Defund slogan has been both praised and maligned. Here’s my unscientific analysis-a third of folks were really motivated by the idea as they had been out marching, getting beaten and tear gassed all over the country in hopes of some racial reckoning, a move toward equality and justice that is centuries overdue; another third screamed, oh no, thugs are coming to drag me out of my suburban (which includes much of Oakland) house; and yet another third said, what the heck does that mean?

So yeah it’s a muddled message at best but lots of Oaklanders believed it could and should happen and feel a bit betrayed by the new budget which actually increases police funding while barely mentioning a few of the proposals they spent hours of their lives working on during the Reimagine process. I hope there can be a way to harness that knowledge and energy in the near future because we do have to rethink policing and incarceration in a country that does both better than healthcare or schooling.

So if we didn’t Defund, did we Refund?

It looks to me as if we began to refund, putting resources towards making it slightly less unbearable to live in a tent, according to Council President Bas’ newletter:

  • Provides sanitation to over 100 encampments while expediting affordable housing solutions;
  • Adds staffing to the city’s Homelessness Division to improve coordination of encampment and case management for unhoused Oaklanders. [I still maintian we need to provide cooking facilities so that unhoused folks can eat fresh food while preventing the increase in encampment fires, those which are not set by arsonists.]

We put more funding towards reinvesting in small business, job training and development (edited for brevity):

  • Provides $300K to small businesses for facade improvements, repairs, and parklets; 
  • Provides $1.5 million in cultural affairs staffing to support artists and festivals, and 
  • Provides $1.5 million in workforce development, training & placement targeted to our flatlands- youth, unhoused, and formerly incarcerated folks.

And, for our neighborhoods, some very tangible benefits that will immediately make them safer and more secure (again, edited for brevity):

  • Restores the 13+ crossing guards at Oakland schools, which had been cut in the mayor’s budget; 
  • Restores the mayor’s cut of 4 enforcement officers to address illegal dumping; 
  • Pilots a 25-member Parks Ambassadors program instead of OPD and reminiscent of the park rangers who once patrolled areas like Lake Merritt;
  • Invests $500K through our sugar-sweetened beverage tax for food cards to neighborhood stores for neighbors who are food insecure. 

Violence Prevention/Interruption Funding

This is the most exciting section of Refunding or reinvesting in our Town. It is the real beginning of a paradigm shift which, though it won’t please police abolitionists, is a move toward reimagining public safety that is humane, progressive and empowering. Here’s my edited list from President Nikki’s newsletter [example, https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/who-are-violence-interrupters]:

  • $17.4 million more to the Department of Violence Prevention to prevent or short circuit violence from happening in the first place with violence interrupters, life coaches, community ambassadors, & investments in our youth.
  • Invests $6.5 million in MACRO, a new mobile crisis response system out of our fire department, so that trained crisis responders — rather than an armed officers — respond to mental health and other non-law enforcement needs called into the 911 system. The State of California just proposed an addtional $10 million to fund our MACRO program. This will design and operate a pilot program before it goes citywide.
  • Transfers low-level vehicle-related 911 calls — which make up thousands of calls for service every year — to our Department of Transportation over the next year.
  • Ultimately, our officers can focus on violent and serious crime, no longer tasked with responding to blocked driveways, auto tows, improper parking, and abandoned autos. Please read that sentence again!

Oh No, Will Chaos Rule?

So if you check Next Door, facebook or twitter since that budget passed on June 26th, according to these social media sites in descending order, crimes from catalytic converter thefts and car break-ins to car jackings and murders have skyrocketed, all of which would not have happened if the city council had passed the mayor’s budget. Huh? The biggest difference in terms of funding was 2 additional police academies over 2 years leaving in 4 academies over 2 years in the budget.

Can Police Even Prevent Crime?

We certainly had a high profile case of terrifying violence when a young man was shot to death in the early evening by the Lake while hundreds, possibly thousands came out to peacefully celebrate Juneteenth, the beginning of the end of the Pandemic and Father’s Day. It was saddening as well as maddening and-even more so as many OPD officers had been deployed and were working in that very area. They were unable to predict or prevent it, and so far haven’t solved this heinous crime.

Much fun has been made, not good fun, albeit, of the use of social workers when one encounters crime but there are very good reasons to train local people to intervene to de-escalate incidentss where the police don’t necessarily want to intervene and where the addition of guns and billy clubs can exacerbate an already fraught situation. At least 45% of calls to 911 do not require an armed response and dispatchers know the difference (unlike neighbors on Next Door!)

As to immediate policing needs during what seems to be a crime spike–the number of officers have not been cut though they are being lost to attrition. But no training class or police academy can dispense new officers ready to hit the streets for almost a year no matter what budget had passed! This fact is unavoidable folks. Do not get on Next Door and demand that more officers be dispatched just to yell at young men walking through your neighborhood. No magic wand will come and save us. The only vaccine against crime is the early cure of poverty and there’s no time like the present to begin.

Violence interrupters, ambassadors and especially Ceasefire staff can probably be deployed much faster than new officers. MACRO will also take some time to get geared up but more funding for investigations of what seem to be crime rings, #dudewheresmycatalyticconverter, so that we can break the cycle, could help. But, once again, the damage that was done by decades of disinvestment, a year and a half of worldwide plague along with the dangerous policies coming out of the Trump White House for four years, have taken a heavy toll on our under-resourced, needy Town. There is no bandaid large enough to cover the very real bleeding happening now in Oakland.

The Mayor’s Role

Many city hall watchers believe the mayor proposed additional police academies knowing they would be voted down because of cost (almost $4 miilion per the resulting 17 new officers) and then she could point a finger at the council claiming the police budget was cut. It’s also unlikely the department could have found enough good candidates to fill out a third class in a year. Not everyone wants to be a cop these days, especially in a department that can’t stop racially profiling long enough to get out of federal oversight. [And if you don’t want to join the force because you might be observed and sanctioned if you misuse your authority, please don’t!]

It comes down to whether you believe in a punitive, lock’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to community or the more optimistic plan to invest in our residents who give Oakland its hard working brilliance in the form of music, murals, poetry, and creative entrepreneurship, not to mention its thirst for justice.

Unfortunately we are in a time much like the rest of our sad country. We are angry, scared and divided-just as divided as Washington DC. Our mayor, rather than work “across the aisle” has sought to use that division to promote herself and her protegees. She has engaged in fear mongering without offering much in the way of solutions. She is a smart person who has seemed to turn bitter and worn out, employing tropes and defensiveness to buttress her narrative. Hey, being the mayor of a big city during a time of unprecedented ugliness can do that-but it doesn’t help. [And it’s not helping, stop it Libby, you are better than that.]

How to Build Back Better

This could be a time of transformative change but it’s still too early to tell if that will happen. Many folks say, oh now’s not the time, law enforcement, not crime deterrents in the form of summer jobs for youth, funds for budding entrepreneurs, and empowering those in the community who know how to de-escalate tensions, will have to wait.

Isn’t that how we got here, where inequality has become the most blatant and painful, where communities on the edge have felt themselves teetering into the abyss? This crisis is as real as the environmental catastrophe that is looming, punishment and discipline won’t fix either. We have to creatively and financially support the sustenance of life, the embodiment of hope, the truth of love. Can we unite behind that, Oakland?

6 Comments on "Oakland Defund-Refund-What Happened?"

  1. Yes!

  2. Thank you! All this needed to be said!

  3. Brad Erickson | July 10, 2021 at 3:26 am | Reply

    Thank you Pamela, your insight into the Mayor’s (mis)behavior is helpful.

  4. Another great assessment and explanation of a key issue impacting all of us. Pamela is a brilliant, insightful and entertaining writer!

  5. You don’t get these disputes over the budget facts in other big cities.

    Last year didn’t the city hire Harvey Rose firm who oversees SF budget to clean up the format of our budget documents? if the City Council instructed City Administrator to pay the Rose frim to produce a comparison of prior year actual to approved current year, we wouldn’t be wasting time arguing the facts.

    Going forward we need that analysis before a budget is approved. Not rocket science but city budgeting by nature is messy. There has to be the political will of both the Council and the Mayor to make it transparent. With current reporting procedures each side could claim victory to their supporters.

  6. Pamela
    One of your best!

    As a frequent community member of the OPD Oral Boards, I can say the bottom of the barrel is being scraped. The last board I participated in over Teams (multiple hours on a video conference is exhausting), the OPD officer and OPD adjacent City employee were equally underwhelmed to say the least.

    If Libby insists on more academies and graduates, we’ll be back in the Guap swamp/

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