Many Oakland activists, like these protesters at Mosswood Park in June, have long called for alternatives to police responses. Credit: Pete Rosos

Last summer, amid protests and a looming city budget deficit caused by the pandemic and police overspending, Oakland’s City Council faced calls to cut the Oakland Police Department’s budget. The council chose not to take immediate action and instead set up a task force to recommend ways to redesign Oakland’s public safety system, with the goal of folding some version and number of these new ideas into the next two-year budget.

Between September and March, the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force’s 17 members met over Zoom calls, often late into the night, and debated the best ways to meet the goal of chopping $150 million from OPD’s yearly budget while making the city safer. Discussions were sometimes tense. Different members of the panel—which included self-identified police abolitionists and residents of high-crime neighborhoods who work closely with the police—approached the work from divergent perspectives. For a few weeks, the process seemed like it might go off the rails.

But during its final meeting on Wednesday night, which lasted into the early morning hours Thursday, the task force approved a long list of recommendations for the City Council to consider in June when it votes on the budget.

A total of 88 recommendations got a majority vote from the panel’s members. They include alternatives to policing, ways to strengthen or create new prevention programs to address root causes of community violence, policies to improve the quality of policing, or plans to simply cut the police budget.

Some of the task force recommendations, if adopted by the City Council, are likely to run up against opposition from the Oakland Police Officers Association. Several proposals call for the council to fast-track the renegotiation of the police union’s contract, with the goal of seeking changes that would make it easier to eliminate police officer positions, fire officers for misconduct, and reduce overtime pay rates. Many of the other recommendations might also require bargaining with the police union because they involve changes to working conditions and job roles.

One recommendation would eliminate binding arbitration for officers disciplined for misconduct. Under the police union’s current contract with the city, officers fired or otherwise punished for policy violations can appeal to a neutral arbitrator. Currently, the arbitrator often rules in favor of reinstating officers to their jobs, even in cases of fatal police shootings. Another recommendation asks the council to amend the police union’s contract in order to reduce the number of sworn officer positions the city is required to fund each year, while yet another advises that the pay rate for police overtime be cut.

The OPOA did not respond to a request for comment from The Oaklandside about the task force’s recommendations.

Other sweeping policy ideas include a proposal to have most of the city’s traffic enforcement transferred out of OPD and handled by the Department of Transportation. This would mean that unarmed civilians would enforce most traffic laws, leaving OPD to handle “high risk situations, such as reckless driving and extreme speeding.” The plan calls for decriminalizing most traffic violations and reducing fines and fees and having OakDOT staff focus mostly on making streets safer by focusing enforcement on high injury corridors.

City council president Nikki Fortunato Bas wrote in an email to The Oaklandside that she supports the concept of having the Department of Transportation handle traffic enforcement.

Another recommendation that would upend the status quo is to shrink or eliminate OPD’s internal affairs division, an office that investigates police misconduct. The division currently employs 20 officers. Under the proposal, the job of investigating police misconduct would fall entirely on the Oakland Police Commission and its Community Police Review Agency. The task force estimated this could save at least $1 million per year.

City councilmember Loren Taylor wrote in an email that he supports transferring most of the police department’s internal affairs staff to Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency. According to Taylor, this would increase efficiencies and help OPD refocus its officers on solving violent crimes. 

Taylor also said he supports dedicating the first $20 million in savings found in the task force’s proposals to the city’s relatively new Department of Violence Prevention, which operates programs to reduce shootings, homicides, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation.

Bas said she also supports increasing funding for the Department of Violence Prevention, and that she would like to see the expansion of non-police programs like “community ambassadors” in areas like Chinatown, Lake Merritt, and Eastlake/Little Saigon.

The two councilmembers also agreed on the need to make immediate investments in MACRO, the non-police emergency response unit the council voted to approve earlier this week. MACRO will be housed in the Oakland Fire Department and respond to a variety of non-violent 911 calls. Anne Janks, a volunteer with the Coalition for Police Accountability which advocated for the MACRO program, said these could include calls like a person wandering in traffic, public urination, or trespassing, as well as mental health service calls.

“I’m very excited about the outcome of this entire process,” said James Burch, a member of the task force who is the policy director of the Anti Police-Terror Project, an activist group in Oakland. “It’s been difficult and grueling. A lot of people with different worldviews were asked to come into a space and offer opinions on a topic we all hold dear.”

Burch leads APTP’s Defund OPD campaign, which has advocated for cutting the city’s roughly $330 million police budget for several years, well before the idea gained mainstream interest. He said some of the task force’s recommendations, such as removing police from most traffic enforcement duties, go far beyond cosmetic reforms.

“In the very beginning it was clear there were some pretty opposing views,” said Pat Kernighan, who served on the City Council representing District 2 from 2005 to 2014 and was picked by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to serve on the task force. “The key part of what people disagreed on was whether police should be withdrawn from neighborhoods before new programs were up and running and proved to be effective.”

In December, this difference in opinion came to a head when several task force members wrote a letter calling on the entire panel to commit to ensuring that any alternatives to policing would be up and running before police staffing reductions were made, and that these alternatives would be proven to reduce or prevent violent crime. “Even more lives will be lost if police are removed without an alternative response being put in place that is guaranteed to work as good as or better than the current system,” task force members John Jones III, Keisha Henderson, Ginale Harris, Antoine Towers, and Carol Wyatt wrote.

At the time the city was reeling from a spike in gun violence that started last spring and is continuing into 2021.

Kernighan said that the panel’s members didn’t really overcome this disagreement so much as set it aside, leaving the difficult questions of when and how to reduce police services to the City Council.

“It was put on the back burner and we moved on to talk about, in a perfect world, what would be the better way of doing public safety,” said Kernighan. “What are the non-police alternatives to making neighborhoods safe in Oakland?

According to Burch, many of the things OPD officers currently respond to can be done by unarmed civilians who aren’t as expensive to train and hire, and who would not have as tense a relationship with Black and brown communities.

“Traffic enforcement accounts for 12.6% of police calls for service,” said Burch. “It’s a very significant amount of time they’re responding to calls and we know Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed and killed during traffic stops.”

Burch said a guiding philosophy for him while serving on the task force was to support policies that would “minimize encounters between le and people of Oakland.”

Kernighan said the task force was able to agree on so many things because it focused very much on investments that can be made to strengthen communities and prevent the conditions that lead to community violence, crime, and the need for policing.

“Even though different task force members disagreed about how many police should be in neighborhoods, what we pretty much all agreed is that in what we’ve been calling the most impacted neighborhoods, everyone agrees there needs to be a lot more investment,” said Kernighan.

Councilmembers Taylor and Bas and their colleagues on the council will have the opportunity to vote on some of the task force’s recommendations later this year. Bas and Taylor also co-chaired the task force and attended its meetings.

“The finalization of the [task force’s] recommendations is a great first step in creating the reimagined public safety system that protects and addresses the needs of all Oakland residents,” said Taylor. “I look forward to the council’s deliberation and swift adoption of the task force’s recommendations as well as the continued partnership of community members during implementation.”

Bas said she is grateful for the work of the task force members and many volunteers who drafted policy proposals. She called the recommendations “transformative, trauma-informed solutions to increase safety for our communities—particularly our BIPOC communities,” adding that cost savings will be used to “refund vital safety net services that have suffered decades of disinvestment, and to expand systems of healing and care rather than incarceration and punishment.”

According to Anand Subramanian, one of the facilitators of the task force, the approved recommendations will now be put into a final report to send to the City Council. The council must approve the next two-year budget before the end of June, and decide which, if any, of the task force’s recommendations to include in the budget.

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.