Even though Oakland City Council meetings are not currently held at City Hall, there are still plenty of ways to participate online and make your voice heard. Credit: Pete Rosos

After hearing from dozens of public speakers—including leaders from the city’s two largest employee unions—asking for cuts to the Oakland Police Department’s budget, several members of the Oakland City Council laid out plans last night to dramatically slash police spending and invest more in non-police services.

Once considered a fringe idea, the concept of radically shrinking police spending has rocketed into the political mainstream thanks to the massive protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer last month.

“It’s a very exciting time,” said James Burch, the policy director of the Anti-Police Terror Project, a group that has advocated over the past five years for deep cuts to OPD’s budget. Burch helped create the “defund OPD” campaign and advocated for steep cuts to OPD in 2017, when the last two-year budget was approved. His group is currently seeking a 50% cut to the police department, or about $150 million. He said the idea of shrinking the police budget isn’t new, and that we are witnessing the hard work of years of organizing coming to fruition. 

“We are ripe as a society for this framework to be applied to policing,” said Burch.

Mayor Schaaf’s office did not immediately respond to questions from The Oaklandside about OPD’s budget. The Oakland Police Officers’ Association, the union that represents the police, also did not respond to a request for comment. 

Specific plans

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas has offered the clearest proposal for cutting police spending. “Let’s commit to shifting at least $25 million from OPD to community programs and services that truly keep us safe,” Bas told her colleagues at last night’s meeting. “This is a starting point.”

Bas said she was overwhelmed by thousands of comments her office has received from Oakland residents who want the city to reimagine public safety.

Bas wants to freeze hiring for vacant police officer positions, something Mayor Libby Schaaf’s budget proposal does not do. There are 46 police officer positions currently budgeted for but unfilled, according to the city’s most recent staffing report. Bas estimates that freezing these jobs could free up to $12.5 million.

Bas also wants $10 million trimmed from OPD’s operations and maintenance budget, which includes items like rental cars and office supplies. She thinks at least $3 million more can be cut from OPD’s overtime budget. 

The City Council budgeted $15 million for OPD to spend on overtime during the 2019-2020 year, which ends June 30, but the department has spent more than $40 million, according to city records.

These cuts, according to Bas, would free up enough money to avoid furloughing the city’s civilian employees in libraries, parks and recreation, human services, transportation, and other departments, and leave enough for investments in non-police programs like housing and mental health.

Bas is joined by Council President Rebecca Kaplan, who released her own budget plan Monday, including up to $20 million in cuts to police.

Kaplan wants a $4 million cut from OPD’s overtime budget, which currently pays for police to respond to mental health and homeless-related calls that do not involve crime. Kaplan also wants $200,000 cut from the police department’s $750,000 public-information unit budget, which includes two police officers and a civilian who are supposed to provide the media and the public with information regarding police matters. And she thinks the city can save $2.5 million by canceling a planned police academy.

Councilmember Sheng Thao also expressed support at last night’s meeting for redistributing a significant share of funds away from OPD.

“Currently 44% of our general fund budget goes towards OPD,” said Thao. “Investing in a different approach for non-criminal non-violent emergency calls, such as calls related to mental health, and calls related to our unhoused community, can be reimagined, and we can implement a more compassionate, cost-effective response.”

Others open to change

It’s unclear whether the rest of the City Council is willing to take as large a bite out of the police budget as Bas and Kaplan have proposed, but most councilmembers expressed support for major changes at last night’s meeting.

District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb said he is “absolutely open to redirecting funds from OPD,” but added, “how much, it remains to be seen.”

Kalb said he will support new non-police programs for mental health and homeless services, but he does not want to see OPD’s 911 response times reduced. He also said funding should not be directed away from OPD’s criminal investigation units that handle homicide, robberies, rape, and other serious crimes.

“At the last recession ten years ago, that division was gutted,” said Kalb about OPD’s criminal investigations division. “It was gutted, embarrassingly so.”

Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney said she is “so here for the conversation of reimagining public safety,” but did not specifically say whether she supports or opposes redirecting money out of the OPD budget.

McElhaney said that if the Council is serious, it shouldn’t “tinker” with mid-cycle budget amendments, and that changes should instead be addressed in the future, perhaps during the next regular budget process. The council routinely makes mid-cycle amendments to the approved two-year budget to make up for increases or decreases in revenue.

Councilmember Loren Taylor said the resource balance between police and social services needs to shift. 

“It’s ridiculous we’re spending as much as we are on law enforcement and the punitive side, the reactive side of the equation, as opposed to the community empowerment, the uplifting, the preventative side of the equation,” Taylor said during the meeting. He did not identify specific cuts to the police budget he would like to see.

District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo said he supports the idea of funding new programs that could reduce the city’s reliance on police when responding to mental health crises or the homeless, but he said during last night’s discussion, “This is not about reducing a department’s budget or defunding a program.”

Bas expressed disappointment last night at not hearing any specific commitments from her colleagues regarding the police budget. 

“Right now I really wish I could see your faces,” she said during the budget discussion. “In this moment, when the whole country is saying ‘Black lives matter, defund police, and reimagine public safety,’ we have to divest from traditional policing and invest in programs that address the root cause of violence.”

The Council has until June 30 to approve changes to the budget to account for millions in lost revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

OPD’s budget for the 2019-2020 year that ends June 30 is $318 million, or 19% of the city’s total budget. The police are also responsible for a large portion of Oakland’s legal expenses. According to an analysis by The Oaklandside, from 2015 to present, the Oakland City Council voted to settle 40 separate lawsuits, paying out $23 million to victims of police brutality and dangerous driving.

Some city unions support police budget cuts

In a break with the past, two of the city’s largest civilian employee unions are now openly calling for cuts to the police department’s budget so that there can be a “re-balancing” of city services.

“OPD has a huge portion of the city budget,” said Teresa Peterson, an engineer who works in the Oakland Department of Transportation and is a member of the IFPTE Local 21 union, which represents around 1,000 city workers. “They’re proposing to cut OPD’s budget by less than 1%,” said Peterson, while other departments are being cut back by larger amounts.

“Our other departments are really struggling,” said Peterson.

The city’s most recent staffing report shows that 20% of all jobs in the housing and community development department, which supports affordable housing development, renter protections, and other services, are currently unfilled. 

In Peterson’s department, 17% of jobs are currently unfilled, and the mayor’s budget proposal calls for cutting up to seven transportation positions.

In the police department, 7.5% of the jobs are currently unfilled.

Peterson said her department cannot handle the number of projects it has, including street safety improvements to reduce pedestrian and bicycle injuries and deaths.

“My team is severely understaffed,” Peterson said. “It’s been really hard to get projects delivered.”

“SEIU 1021 has long advocated for more funding for services and questioned the outsized budgets given to police,” said Felipe Cuevas, a heavy equipment mechanic with the city who is president of the union’s Oakland chapter.

Cuevas said his chapter’s members support converting jobs in the police department to non-police functions, particularly roles that interact with the city’s homeless population. He also said OPD’s overtime budget should be reduced, and that the department should not be able to go over its allotted overtime funding as it does every year.

Burch of the Anti Police-Terror Project said that although the idea of “defunding” the police was treated as a non-starter by the City Council three years ago, he’s not surprised it has now entered the political mainstream. He said he thinks this will change all future budget debates in Oakland and the rest of the nation.

“The ‘defund OPD’ message has always been received well by the people. It’s always resonated and had popular support,” said Burch. “The glaring contradiction that is the amount of money we invest in policing has been exposed to the public. This is here to stay.”

Correction: the original version of this story misidentified the date that the city’s current fiscal year ends. It has been updated accordingly.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.