Oakland City Hall. Credit: Pete Rosos

In the midst of national protests against police brutality and calls for reduced funding for police departments, and facing a $96 million deficit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, five of the Oakland City Council’s eight members voted Tuesday to cut or transfer millions of dollars from the police department budget to pay for other city services.

The city’s updated spending plan appears to include approximately $12 million in immediate reductions or transfers of funds out of the Oakland Police Department, or about 3% of OPD’s total budget. The cuts are less than what several councilmembers were hoping for, but still mark a shift in the city’s priorities. 

The revised budget avoids layoffs or furloughs of city employees that were originally sought by the city administration, thanks in part to state and federal coronavirus relief funding.

Among other new expenditures included in the revised budget:

  • $1.35 million for the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program, which will create a team of unarmed, civilian first responders for emergency mental health calls
  • $200,000 to help the Police Commission, a civilian oversight committee, with its investigative backlog
  • $250,000 in additional funding for tagging and towing abandoned vehicles
  • $250,000 for blight reduction efforts in the “flatlands” neighborhoods of East and West Oakland

The new budget adjustments were the work of councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Loren Taylor, Larry Reid, and Noel Gallo. The group of four referred to themselves at the meeting as the “equity caucus” because they said their version of the budget focuses resources on Oakland’s lowest-income neighborhoods. 

The four members were joined by Council President Rebecca Kaplan, who amended their plan with an $8 million reduction to OPD overtime spending. According to Kaplan’s amendment, the money will be withheld from OPD until the city analyzes all of the current police jobs that could be converted to civilian positions, and conducts a review of OPD’s tendency to spend money on overtime without Council authorization. OPD routinely spends more on overtime than is in its budget.

But even while OPD’s budget was slightly trimmed, during the same meeting yesterday, the Council approved $2.25 million in spending for maintenance of OPD’s three helicopters and another $600,000 for Shotspotter, a gunshot detection system used by OPD. District 7 and District 5 councilmembers Larry Reid and Noel Gallo expressed support for Oakland police throughout the meeting and made the motions to fund OPD’s helicopter and Shotspotter programs.

Others sought more time

The revised city budget was opposed by three councilmembers, Dan Kalb (District 1), Sheng Thao (District 4), and Nikki Fortunato Bas (District 2).

Councilmembers Kalb and Thao abstained from voting after saying they didn’t feel they were given enough time to review the plans submitted by the equity caucus, and that they wanted to consult further with the city administration. Both agreed, however, with funding programs like MACRO and with redirecting funds from police to other services.

Kalb said he wants a thorough review of all of OPD’s calls for service to determine how a much larger chunk of the department’s work can be civilianized. Doing so could result in millions more being cut from the police budget in the long term. He and Thao had hoped to meet with city staff Wednesday to develop their own budget plan, but last night’s vote cut them off.

“Sheng and I were going to meet and work today with the city’s finance director, but we were blindsided by the vote last night,” Kalb said this morning.

According to city records, the “equity caucus” members did not share the final version of their budget amendments with the rest of the City Council until 12:19 p.m., after the Council meeting had started.

District 3 Councilmember McElhaney pushed last night for an immediate vote on the budget. She invoked the names of Black people killed by the police and said she supports efforts to defund the OPD. However, she characterized opposing budget plans that would have done more to reduce police spending as “academic talk” and “games.” 

She mentioned her own son, Victor McElhaney, who was murdered in Los Angeles last year, and said that while many want to cut police budgets further, there is still a need for police to investigate violent crimes in Oakland.

Councilmember Thao called the rush to vote a “disservice to voters.”

Larger cut proposed

Distinct 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who sought a minimum $25 million cut to OPD and proposed a process to reach a 50% reduction of $150 million to police spending by March 1, 2021, voted no on the equity caucus budget.

After the meeting, Bas wrote a sharply worded statement on Twitter, characterizing the equity caucus budget as a “slap in the face to thousands of Oaklanders” who had contacted the Council in recent weeks asking for far-reaching cuts to policing and expansion of non-police services.

According to Bas, the actual reduction to police spending in the equity caucus budget is only $2.5 million. This is because the equity caucus proposed only a $2.5 million reduction through a budgeting maneuver that shifts half the cost of a police academy into the next fiscal year’s budget. In other words, the city will still fund the police academy, but pay for half of it in a future budget.

The rest of the roughly $9.5 million in cuts and transfers of funds out of OPD adopted last night were already incorporated in the budget by the city administration. Staff included these cuts and transfers in response to earlier proposals from councilmembers, including Bas and Kaplan. They included items such as cutting OPD’s rental car budget by $150,000.

A portion of the city administration’s $9.5 million in OPD reductions, approximately $3.8 million, were achieved through transfers of existing civilian staff and funds out of the police department budget and into other city departments. These transfers don’t actually amount to a reduction in spending on police officers. 

For example, the city administration shifted $1.8 million out of OPD and into the Department of Transportation to pay for 29 crossing guards, and shifted another $2 million from OPD to the City Administrator’s Office to pay for 12 neighborhood services coordinators who work on crime reduction and safety projects throughout the city.

In total, the city administration recommended freezing 15 vacant police officer jobs, a suggestion adopted in the equity caucus budget. Four of the frozen police positions will create a savings of $1 million, used to pay for the MACRO mental health program. The other 11 frozen police positions create only $680,000 in savings because these jobs will be converted to civilian positions in OPD’s public information unit and internal affairs division.

Bas sought a much larger cut to the police budget by freezing potentially dozens of vacant police officer positions. The move would have redirected an additional $19.5 million to other departments.

Bas also wanted the Council to adopt a process whereby community stakeholder groups would weigh in on ways to cut OPD’s $300 million annual budget in half, with a goal of approving a budget in 2021 that reduced the police share of the city’s general fund from 44% to 22%.

The equity caucus budget passed last night included a similar policy goal of reducing OPD’s share of the budget by 50%, and directed the city administration to set up a task force for this “transformational vision.”

Council President Kaplan said she thinks the city’s revised budget is a step in the right direction. Other cities, which have been described in recent media reports as cutting their police budget, have only passed resolutions stating an intention to make cuts, Kaplan told The Oaklandside. 

“We not only did that, but we also made a set of actual cuts this time,” said Kaplan.

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.