Outside the Yuen Hop Noodle Company Market in Chinatown in Oakland. Photo: Pete Rosos

At a Wednesday press conference in Chinatown to discuss a series of disturbing robberies and assaults targeting Asian seniors and neighborhood shops, Mayor Libby Schaaf criticized City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas’s approach to public safety. With Bas standing behind her at the gathering, Schaaf said that a budget proposal drafted by Bas last summer—a plan that was voted down—would have cut police services and made crime in Chinatown even worse.

Bas, whose district includes Chinatown, responded to Schaaf in a Facebook livestream filmed with District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife last night. Bas said she felt “attacked” by the mayor and added that what Schaaf said about her budget plan was “just not true.” Bas noted that recent cuts to OPD, which removed police officers from some parts of the city, including Chinatown and downtown, were made by Schaaf and City Administrator Ed Reiskin in December—not by her and the rest of the council.

“I want to set the record straight,” Bas said in the livestream.

During the press conference, Schaaf defended those budget cuts and police service reductions, made in December, as necessary to avoid a fiscal emergency.

In an immediate sense, the city’s two most powerful elected officials were criticizing each other over who is responsible for police staffing in Chinatown. But on a deeper level, their disagreement represents a fissure between city leaders like Schaaf who have publicly stated support for largely preserving or even expanding police spending, and those like Bas, who want to dramatically reduce the police budget and shift some public-safety duties away from the Oakland Police Department’s armed officers.

Meanwhile, it’s not yet known for sure whether this tense exchange reflects a real change in crime patterns. It might be true that there has been an increase in violent robberies over the past several weeks in Chinatown, but the Oakland Police Department hasn’t publicly shared data supporting this claim. Crime reports for the entire city and the area that encompasses Chinatown show a drop in robberies and burglaries in January 2021 compared to the same month last year, but members of Chinatown’s merchant community say the increase is real and demand immediate action.

Oakland’s budget is at the center of the public safety debate

Two opposing visions of public safety in Oakland have been on a collision course since protests against police violence kicked off again this summer, leading to a searing debate about how policing should work across the country. 

The Oakland City Council voted last year to seek deep reductions in the police department’s budget and reinvest money in services and programs meant to address the root causes of crime. To that end, the city convened a Reimagining Public Safety Task Force made up of volunteer residents and co-chaired by Bas and Councilmember Loren Taylor. The task force is supposed to send recommendations to the City Council this spring, before the council prepares the next city budget. On the table are cuts to OPD and funding for non-police mental health services, civilian traffic enforcement, and much more.

But the task force’s members are divided about what to do. Some are wary of making significant police budget cuts, and the group has spent weeks debating what their core principles should be. The task force is far from reaching a consensus about how to transform public safety through Oakland’s budget.

Meanwhile, gun violence has skyrocketed in Oakland and other cities, with Black and Latino men most likely to fall victim to a shooting. The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact has created massive shortfalls in city tax revenue, and the OPD overspent its budget this year, mostly on overtime, contributing to huge deficits in the city’s general fund.

In December, Schaaf and Reiskin cut $29 million in city services to help balance Oakland’s 2020-2021 budget. This included a $15 million reduction to OPD’s overtime, specialized units, and programs, which helped pay for foot patrol units, community resource officers, and the anti-gun violence Ceasefire unit.

As a councilmember from 2011 to 2014, and as mayor since 2015, Schaaf has supported the possibility of growing the police department and adding police officers. Since 2015, Schaaf has successfully proposed budgets that grew police spending each year, and from $241 million to $330 million this year.

Bas, who joined the City Council in 2018, has been more critical of the police. Last June, she proposed a $25 million budget cut to OPD as a first step toward larger future cuts. But at yesterday’s press conference in Chinatown, Bas told business owners and others who were assembled that she supports their goals and that the “reimagining public safety” effort is meant to increase OPD’s ability to address violent crime.

“We want to achieve an ability for Oakland and our police department to be able to focus on violent crime, whether it’s our Black community out in East Oakland, where there’s a very dramatic increase in shootings, or it’s our business communities like Chinatown that are impacted by armed robberies,” said Bas.

Schaaf closed out her remarks at the press conference by focusing on Bas and Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who also supported large cuts to the police budget last summer—cuts that were never made.

“I’m very pleased to hear from Councilmember Nikki Bas and from Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan that they support these additional resources that the Chinatown community has asked for today,” Schaaf said, referring to foot patrols and security cameras. “But I have not forgotten that this last summer they brought a proposal to cut $25 million from the Oakland Police Department budget as a political statement, not because of operational or financial needs. If that proposal had passed, those walking officers would have been gone long ago. So I do not forget that history. I hope you do not either.”

Bas rejected the mayor’s characterization of her budget proposal, which sought to cut money mostly by freezing hiring for up to 46 vacant police officer positions and trimming $10 million from OPD’s operations and maintenance budget, which includes things like office supplies and equipment. “That $25 million reduction did not reduce community policing,” Bas said on Facebook last night.

Is crime increasing in Oakland’s Chinatown?

While the divide between police supporters and reformers is very real, it’s not yet clear whether the spark that set off the current debate between Schaaf and Bas reflects a true increase in crime in Chinatown compared to previous years.

Chinatown is on edge after several recent strong-arm robberies and an assault that have been characterized by TV news reporters as a spike in crime and a wave of violent attacks. Carl Chan of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce told ABC7 that he knows of “a series of at least 20 robberies and attacks” in the neighborhood. Chan and other community leaders organized yesterday’s press conference to put pressure on city leaders like Schaaf and Bas to deploy more police officers, especially through foot patrols, and place surveillance cameras around the district.

Schaaf and Bas both said at Wednesday’s press conference that they’re concerned about the apparent increase in crime in Chinatown and expressed sympathy with the victims of robberies.

But is Chinatown actually seeing a spike compared to other years at this time? Data released by the Oakland Police Department so far do not support this claim.

In OPD’s patrol Area 1, which encompasses Chinatown, West Oakland, and downtown, the overall number of reported crimes in January is down 60% from last January, and robberies are down 40%. Citywide, Oakland has seen roughly the same number of robberies in January 2021 as in the same month in 2020, while burglaries have dropped by almost 70%. Homicides, especially deaths linked to gun violence, have risen dramatically during the pandemic, but these deaths are largely occurring in other parts of Oakland, not in Chinatown.

The Oakland police department hasn’t publicly shared data about recent crimes within the tighter radius of Chinatown, which is bounded by Broadway, 14th Street, the Lake Merritt Channel, and I-880. The Oaklandside has requested this data and will update this post if we obtain it.

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.