A task force will "reimagine public safety" in Oakland after months of protest and debate. Credit: Pete Rosos

Months of debate and protest reached a turning point Tuesday when the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to establish a “Reimagining Public Safety Task Force,” a group of 17 residents who will draft a plan to reduce the Oakland Police Department’s budget by half and reallocate this money to other services like housing and mental health. 

For some, the decision is a victory and signals that the previously unthinkable—Oakland officials supporting a major reduction in police funding—is now possible. For others, the vote is just another delay, and a frustrating compromise after the council majority previously passed police budget cuts that didn’t go nearly as far as other proposals.

Still others fear that dismantling big parts of the police department through millions in cuts could leave Oakland residents vulnerable to violent crime.

The Oaklandside reached out to several people who’ve been outspoken and engaged in issues of local police funding, to hear their reactions to Tuesday’s vote, and their hopes for next steps. Some did not answer our interview requests, including Oakland Police Association President Barry Donelan. 

Benjamin Salop, 16, Oakland Youth Advisory Commission co-chair

Salop is going into his junior year at Oakland Technical High School and he helps run the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission, which will get to appoint two members of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. 

“I’m really excited that we can get some more youth appointed in Oakland and really happy the City Council is acknowledging the role of youth in advocating for this change,” Salop said. 

“Youth have a lot of experience both on the frontlines of these protests and as victims of over-policing. My fellow commission members have been victims of police brutality. As a white person living on Piedmont Avenue, I rarely see police except when they’re getting coffee at Peet’s. But we all as youth experience this stuff daily, walking to and from school or feeling outrage seeing unarmed men being killed by police.” 

While young people can be made to feel “powerless” in moments like these, they’re passionate and engaged, Salop said. He wasn’t surprised to see thousands of his peers turn out to the protest in front of his school in June. 

The youth commission “believes that crime and injustice can be eliminated or prevented by providing opportunities to youth and offering every resident of Oakland equal rights, equal work, and equal housing,” Salop said. “Then youth will have many different opportunities in their future instead of being punished for a mistake for the rest of their life.” 

Chaney Turner, entrepreneur, member of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission

Turner has long advocated for divesting from the Oakland Police Department, and does not feel optimistic that Tuesday’s vote will achieve that goal. 

“I feel the mayor and some of our council representatives are really using this moment to manipulate the overall community,” said Turner. “I don’t understand why further delay is needed when the groundwork has been done by numerous organizations in Oakland.” 

Turner criticized the City Council’s “Equity Caucus,” which includes councilmembers Loren Taylor (District 6), Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3), Larry Reid (District 7), and Noel Gallo (District 5). The Equity Caucus’ version of the city budget that reduced OPD spending by about $12 million was passed in June over a different proposal that included deeper police cuts. “I don’t see them really advocating for actual investment into districts that they serve, which are predominantly Black and brown and hit hardest by COVID,” Turner said.

Turner was also discouraged by a controversial decision to allow Mayor Libby Schaaf an appointee on the new task force. “She doesn’t need to be part of any decision making around reimagining funds—that should only include community members and people who’ve been harmed by not only violence but the war on drugs, and low-income people,” Turner said. “Communities that have been historically—I use the word terrorized—such as communities where I live [in East Oakland], we need to have funding prioritized for those areas.”

Akil Riley, 19, college student and organizer

Riley is one of the two young Oakland activists who organized a 15,000-person protest at his alma mater, Oakland Technical High School, in June. Since then, “I’ve been having a lot of conversations and working with my organization, Black Youth for People’s Liberation. I’ve been observing and attending protests,” he said. “My eyes are opening.”

Akil Riley, a 19-year-old activist, said “my eyes are opening” to systemic injustice. Photo: Darwin BondGraham

When Riley and friend Xavier Brown put out the call for the Oakland Tech protest, they said their aim was an overhaul of the system, not to seek “a change of heart of the people in power.” With Tuesday’s vote, Riley said, “I’m still kind of worried about where funds will go and whether there’d still be funds allocated to police behind the scenes.”

Riley, who just finished his first year at Howard University, wants money redirected to “mental health services, community services, and alternate emergency response.” 

As far as who should be appointed to the new task force, he’d like to see “poor people, people in areas that have been heavily policed, and people that are subject to the system, which encapsulates a lot of identities.”

Cat Brooks, co-founder, Anti Police-Terror Project

For Brooks, Tuesday’s vote is a “campaign victory” in a decade-long movement. The Anti Police-Terror Project also saw a victory in court this week, when a federal judge issued an injunction in response to a lawsuit the group filed, restricting OPD’s use of rubber bullets and tear gas.

“We can’t remove this moment from the trajectory of 10 years, starting with Oscar Grant,” she said. “We were literally laughed out of the room five years ago. I think there were people sitting on their couches watching protesters during the BLM period of time that got off their couches and came to the streets this time. I think the numbers were too much for elected officials to ignore anymore.”

Brooks said she doesn’t view Tuesday’s vote as a delay, and that APTP pushed for a task force in the first place.

“What we want is to be very thoughtful around what parts of OPD get divested from, and what things OPD is doing that they don’t need to do anymore,” she said. “We’ve been doing data and research for years—but really having those conversations in a public way. Then being strategic about what programs already exist that could replace OPD, like MH First. So once budget cuts do happen, the community is ready to still be held and taken care of, and there’s somebody to call.”

But APTP is “distraught” that the mayor gets to appoint a member of the task force, Brooks said. “We’ve been very clear that the people that should lead the task force are people that have been negatively impacted by 911 response—people who’ve lost loved ones to law enforcement, and the orgs on the ground doing the work,” she said. 

“The facilitator has to be someone who’s not a police apologist. It can’t be a task force of people who are afraid they’re going to hurt OPD’s feelings,” said Brooks.

Black Organizing Project members protesting at a School Board meeting in March. (Courtesy of Black Organizing Project) Credit: Courtesy: Black Organizing Project

Des Mims, member-organizer, Black Organizing Project

Mims worked on the Black Organizing Project’s successful 10-year campaign to disband the Oakland Unified School District’s police force. That decision, in June, was a “catalyst” for a parallel “victory” with OPD, she said, and both votes were the result of sustained community pressure.

“It was really people power,” Mims said. “I think it really made a difference because it wasn’t just Black and brown people, but allies as well. People have stepped up and learned there’s an opportunity to create systemic change. The community forced the City Council’s hand and that’s a great thing. There’s a spotlight on them, and they don’t have a lot of leeway like they did in the past. Even just the City Council moving toward defunding is history itself.”

The Black Organizing Project is “elated” over the City Council’s vote, but cautious about getting overly excited, Mims said. She pointed to OPD’s request for an additional $2 million from the city to respond to school-related calls of service now that OUSD’s police force will be gone. 

“I think it’s their last attempt to grab at dollars when there’s an overwhelming realization that police don’t equal safety in our communities,” Mims said.

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.