Oakland Police Department Homeless Services Unit Sgt. John Perrodin and Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries in 2018 during a homeless camp closure. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Across the country, activists are calling on governments to spend far less on police departments and far more on other social services. So far in Oakland, city officials have mostly favored leaving the Oakland Police Department’s large budget intact. OPD gets the largest chunk of Oakland’s general fund, approximately $290 million over the past year and about 44% of the total.

Now, some residents are questioning a plan to pay for three Oakland police officers through a tax intended to support homeless Oaklanders and fund parks.

The tension centers on Measure Q, which nearly 70% of voters approved in March. The measure allows the city to tax homes and businesses about $150 more each year, and is expected to bring in about $23 million annually for the next 20 years.

In late May, before nationwide protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf proposed tweaking the city budget to pay for the salaries and overtime of three existing Oakland police officers with Measure Q revenue.

The proposal, put forward by Oakland City Administrator Ed Reiskin, would transfer the burden of paying for the officers’ compensation — a total of $905,562 — from Oakland’s general fund to the special Measure Q fund. The three officers in question make up the Oakland Police Department’s Homelessness Outreach Unit, according to the city. City staff believe funding their salaries is an appropriate use of Measure Q tax revenue meant for homelessness costs.

Members of the volunteer Measure Q oversight commission disagree, as do several advocates for unhoused Oaklanders. They say the language in the original ballot measure did not indicate that the revenue could be spent on police.

“Our hope was that Measure Q would be an influx of new funds that would help to provide for more innovative and effective approaches to problems of homelessness, as opposed to typical things the city has done to date,” said James Vann of ShelterOak, a group advocating for homelessness solutions.

Vann said that even if Measure Q could fund police, it shouldn’t. “The homeless community has always felt that they are subject to arrest and being mistreated,” he told The Oaklandside. “There’s never been a desire to involve the police in homeless relations, because it’s never been good in the past.”

At a City Council meeting on June 2, opponents of the mayor’s plan said the city should reconsider the budget change given that Oakland is facing a major deficit due to the coronavirus pandemic, and since the nation is now immersed in protests over police violence.

Talya Husbands-Hankin, founder of Love and Justice in the Streets, a volunteer group that works with homeless people to advocate for more services and improve conditions in camps, argued that Measure Q should not be used on law enforcement.

“This money should be going to support unhoused residents, over 70% of whom are Black,” she said at the meeting. “It would be a huge slap in the face to divert this money away from homeless services to further fund the police.”

“The homeless community has always felt that they are subject to arrest and being mistreated”

James Vann

Police funding is a small part of the mayor’s new Measure Q budget proposal, however. If passed, the bulk of the funds would go toward adding and transferring dozens of staff positions to parks services. The measure stipulates that 64% of revenue should be spent on parks. In the homelessness bucket, which is 30% of the measure, the proposal adds two new staff in community housing services, transfers other staffing costs, and adds $170,000 for programs helping homeless people get housed or sheltered.

In a June 2 letter to the City Council, Brooke Levin and John Bliss, who chair the commission monitoring how Measure Q funds are spent, indicated that they approved of most of the proposal. But they requested the removal of the three OPD officers from the measure’s budget, noting, “There are no program items listed in the Ballot Measure to provide for this funding.” They also wrote that some of the other pieces of the mayor’s proposal, such as using Measure Q funds to pay for administrators’ salaries in the Human Services Department, exceed the 1% allowed by the measure for spending on administrative costs.

“Because this Budget will be the first of the next 20 years of Measure Q, it is critical that we get this right,” Levin and Bliss wrote.

In a letter shared with The Oaklandside, a representative from SEIU Local 1021 — the city’s largest employee union, representing public works employees who clean around homeless camps — said the city might have come up with the budget proposal based on a mistaken impression that the union wants police present when workers clean encampments.

“Some of our members have been threatened and assaulted while trying to clean encampments,” wrote Gabriel Haaland, a political coordinator with SEIU. “With the idea of promoting a safer environment for this work to be done, the City created a policy that unfortunately in our view conflates police presence and safety: it is not our belief that there have to be police on site when we are cleaning these sites, it’s our belief that there should be people there to provide services to this vulnerable population and it’s our charge to make sure our members can do their work safely.”

During the June 2 council meeting, District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, who represents North Oakland, asked for clarification on what the three Homelessness Unit officers currently do, and whether they really spend all of their time on homelessness matters. City staffers said they believed the officers accompany public works staff when they clean or close down encampments, but told the Council they would come back with more details.

“It would be a huge slap in the face to divert this money away from homeless services to further fund the police”

Talya Husbands-Hankin

The Oaklandside asked city staff and OPD representatives for more information on the unit’s duties. A spokesperson for OPD and the president of the Oakland Police Officers Association did not respond to the questions. The city’s finance department directed The Oaklandside to city spokespersons for more information about the proposal. Two spokespersons for the city did not provide answers to The Oaklandside’s questions.

Justin Berton, a spokesperson for Mayor Schaaf, said in an email that the administration delivered the initial budget proposal last month, and that “the mayor is certainly open to adjustments and modifications.”

The bulk of the 30 or so public speakers at the council meeting had come to criticize the behavior of police the night before, when OPD tear-gassed and arrested protesters roughly 15 minutes before the start of the city’s curfew, including some teenagers who took part in a youth-led march earlier that day. Some urged the council to not only eliminate the proposed Measure Q police spending, but to go further and strip general fund support for the police department.

Ann Whidden, a mother of an Oakland Technical High School student, told the council she had joined the student march to support the young organizers, and was tear-gassed.

“If you want to radicalize our young people, the best way to do it is to shoot teargas at them when they show up in the streets for a peaceful protest,” said Whidden, who works at the Public Health Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit supporting global health research and programs. “What we know from evidence is the best way to protect our young folks, our people of color, is to invest in them over time. That means we need to defund the OPD and we need to put the funds we have back into public health. We need to fund programs that support our Black and brown youth, we need to put it into education, into housing, into food security.”

Measure Q proposal comes as Oakland faces major budget cuts

The mayor’s proposal to use funds intended for parks and homeless services to pay for police salaries comes as Oakland and other cities are preparing to make major budget cuts. The coronavirus pandemic has dried up tax revenues while forcing the city to make emergency expenses on public health. Oakland’s leaders have said the city is facing a budget shortfall like it’s never seen before.

The overall mid-cycle budget amendments include the transfer of many existing expenses, like the police officers, to more reliable funds, in an attempt to decrease the burden on the general fund. Vann said he understands that all departments in the city are feeling squeezed.

The city administration is proposing cuts to OPD too, totaling about $4 million, or 1% of the department’s budget.

Several speakers at last week’s City Council meeting contrasted those cuts with the roughly $4 million in reductions proposed for the city’s Parks, Recreation & Youth Development department. Those cuts constitute about 22% of that department’s budget.

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents the area just east of Lake Merritt, said officials need to think critically about where they’re funneling limited resources.

“People are asking us what our priorities are,” she said at the meeting. “Is enforcement needed instead of actually providing homelessness services and housing?”

While East Oakland Councilmembers Noel Gallo (District 5) and Larry Reid (District 7) did not address the police funding question directly, they called for immediate attention to issues of crime and blight in their districts. Reid said it’s not “realistic” to expect Oakland to wait for long-term homelessness solutions, or to shoulder the cost without support from the county.

“We have a corridor that’s riddled with insane violence,” said Reid, who serves neighborhoods just north of the San Leandro border. “We’ve got to continue to be smart, be compassionate, and do things that are within our power to do. Somebody tell me how you build 4,000 units of housing.”

But Bas said it’s important to preserve special funding streams like Measure Q for what they were originally intended for. “When we designate funding for parks, water and homelessness, we have to make sure those homelessness funds are really helping people get into housing and get them services they need,” she said.

The budget amendments will come back to the council for a vote Tuesday, June 16. The agenda will be posted online Friday, and will include instructions for submitting a comment online, through Zoom or over the phone.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.