A sign posted in Oakland in June advocating "defunding" the police. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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When Oakland drafts its 2021-2023 budget early next summer, the City Council will have a detailed report from a group of 17 residents recommending ways to reduce the amount of money spent on the police department by 50%, and ways to invest more in alternatives to policing.

The City Council voted unanimously yesterday to establish a “Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.” Councilmembers Loren Taylor and Nikki Fortunato Bas co-authored the measure. Their partnership marked a kind of truce during what has been an otherwise contentious two-month debate about the future of policing in Oakland, with the council uniting, at least for now, around the goal of dramatically transforming the city’s public safety system.

“This task force is a critical step forward to begin shifting from an institutional frame of enforcement and punishment to creating relationships of care, trust, prevention, and wellness in our community,” Bas said in a press statement after the vote.

Councilmembers were split on what to do throughout June and July, facing pressure from community members who wanted to see funding shifted away from OPD and toward other public resources. Bas pushed for her colleagues on the council to adopt as much as $25 million in budget cuts to the police department in order to free up money immediately and invest in social services, housing, and mental health programs. Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Sheng Thao had offered up their own version of an amended budget, which would also have reduced police spending by millions.

But Taylor, along with councilmembers Larry Reid, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, and Noel Gallo, resisted immediate and large police budget cuts. Kaplan joined these four councilmembers to pass a 2020-2021 budget in June that reduced police spending by about $12 million.

The backdrop to all of this was a wave of national and local protests that saw millions of Americans demanding a fundamental transformation of law enforcement’s role in their communities. In Oakland, protests, civil unrest, rioting, and looting shook the city for a week in late May and early June.

Hundreds of residents called into City Council meetings in June, to ask that the police department be “defunded.” Few commenters supported maintaining current levels of police spending.

While the budget passed by Taylor, Reid, McElhaney, Gallo, and Kaplan included very few actual cuts to the police department, all of the councilmembers expressed a desire to seek a long term transformation that relies less on policing.

Taylor and Bas worked on the task force proposal over the past several weeks.

The task force will be made up of 17 Oakland residents and overseen by councilmembers Taylor and Bas, who will serve as co-chairs.

A slide from councilmember Taylor and Bas’ presentation about the task force’s membership.

Each councilmember and the mayor will be able to make one appointment of a representative who lives in their district, and Taylor and Bas will have one extra appointment each as co-chairs. The mayor’s appointment powers were the only feature of the task force proposal debated last night. Councilmember McElhaney asked that it be cut from the legislation, an amendment that Bas supported. But Taylor opposed this, and with the support of Reid and Kalb the amendment was dropped.

Oakland’s Youth Advisory Commission and Budget Advisory Commission will each make two appointments to the task force, and three city commissions involved in public safety—the Community Policing Advisory Board, Safety Services Oversight Committee, and Police Commission—will make one appointment each.

Taylor said at yesterday’s council meeting that he wants the city to move forward in an “aggressive” and “intentional” way with the task force to be ready for the budget process next year.

“We are looking to have those nominations by the end of August so that we can have a mid-September kickoff for the task force,” said Taylor.

People who want more information, or to get involved with the task force’s work, can email reimaginesafety@oaklandca.gov.

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Darwin BondGraham

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. 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.