Oakland police at the scene of a homicide in May 2020. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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This story was produced in partnership with the Guardian through its Overpoliced, Underprotected series.

Since the visceral video of George Floyd pinned beneath a police officer’s knee sparked massive uprisings around the country last summer, movements to defund police departments have grown from siloed local campaigns into a national movement. But in multiple cities, this work is being done amid a disturbing rise in gun violence that is affecting the same Black and Latino communities most impacted by police misconduct.

While some crime survivors support shifting resources from police and into prevention and healing services, others who have lost loved ones to shootings or live in high-crime areas worry that depleting police budgets without proven alternatives to fill any gaps will make Black and brown communities less safe.

And the further localities dive into the logistics of transforming public safety and lessening reliance on police, the more questions abound. Who are people to call after a shooting? How do we get the most-affected communities to trust new alternatives? How can we go beyond typical reforms into real, radical transformation?

“It’s a scary moment. The anxiety is in not knowing what the outcome of all of this is gonna be,” said East Oakland resident Keisha Henderson.

Henderson, 28, said she has had to deal with bullets flying past her windows and the frustration of slow and sometimes nonexistent police responses to gunfire and other problems. Oakland is experiencing a 314% increase in homicides compared with the same time last year, and a 113% increase in firearms assaults.

Henderson protested alongside thousands of others last summer but said she didn’t want to see total abolition of police, at least until there are “stress-tested” alternatives in place. She is one of 17 members on Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce, an official board established last year which parsed through dozens of recommendations to decide which ones they will present to the city council for adoption in the upcoming budget. Oakland’s goal is to cut police spending by 50%, or $150m a year.

“We can do all these pilot programs but there has to be a balance between holding police accountable to Black residents, while also making sure we are protected some way,” Henderson said. “We need to reallocate and rebuild our communities but we do not need to completely abolish the police so that everything goes haywire.”

At its purest, defunding police is a goal made up of many steps that organizers hope will lead to the complete abolition of police departments, prisons and other carceral systems. But while the proposals put forth in cities like Oakland to reduce police spending—like shifting drug and mental health calls to non-police responders—align with the core principles of police abolitionists, the word “defund” is rarely used by city officials. Most cities have opted for terms like “reimagine” and “reinvest” to describe the work.

“The contradictions and dilemmas are the starting point: you have to meet folks where they are and there has to be space for conversation, critique and pushback that is rooted in a love of one’s community,” said Nikki Jones, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley.

Cities including Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles, have also launched campaigns similar to Oakland’s to “reimagine public safety.” But like Oakland, many other cities are also struggling with increases in gun violence.

Officials in Austin recently cut $20 million from its police budget by cancelling cadet programs and certain contracts after homicides hit a 20-year high last year. The money shaved from Austin’s police is going toward violence prevention, victims’ services, and substance abuse programs. In Los Angeles, where homicides topped 300 for the first time in a decade, the Los Angeles Unified School District divested $25 million from the school police program and shifted it toward Black student achievement.

Supporters of defunding the police don’t see a contradiction in these new investments and hope non-police prevention programs will better address the root causes of violence.

“When we talk about defunding police we have to be very sensitive to victims of crime and we need to hold space for healing,” said Saabir Lockett, director of the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy and member of the Defund OPD coalition in Oakland, California. “I think it’s both and, not either or: how do we defund the police and reinvest in our communities?”

“Gun violence is often used to shut down the conversations it takes to reimagine public safety. It’s exploitative and treats folks’ experiences in a superficial way,” said Jones. “There’s a suggestion that even talking about defunding police makes gun violence more likely to happen even when there’s little evidence to show that that’s true.”

Defund OPD, a five-year-old campaign housed within the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP), is a leading voice in Oakland’s efforts to reduce police spending and invest in areas such as housing, unarmed mental health responses and violence prevention programs.

The campaign began in 2015, a year that the APTP co-founder Cat Brooks refers to as a “bloody” one. The city’s police department killed 11 people and the following year was embroiled in scandal after officers sexually exploited and trafficked a teenager. Since their defunding effort launched, APTP has kept sustained pressure on city officials to cut the department’s budget by at least half.

“The goal is to interrupt and respond to state violence,” said Brooks, a longtime Bay Area social justice organizer and outspoken advocate for families who have lost loved ones to police violence. “We’re good at responding but the only way you get to interruption is to reduce the number of interactions with police.”

Last summer, as protests filled Oakland’s streets and calls to defund OPD reached city hall, the number of murder victims continued to rise, with homicides reaching 107 by the end of the year compared with 75 the year before.

At the end of July, the Oakland city council established its reimagining taskforce and filled its ranks with residents with varying and sometimes opposing views on the best ways to serve local communities.

On Wednesday, the city’s Reimagine Public Safety Task Force finished approving dozens of recommendations to take to city council. Upping investments in proven community violence prevention strategies and creating a program to respond to mental health crises without police present are included in the panoply of alternatives.

Even with these lofty goals and efforts to acknowledge the heavy toll of gun violence, several members of Oakland’s task force remain uneasy about measures that would significantly cut police presence, especially as the city loses ground in its years-long struggle to reduce gun violence.

“We’re supposed to address it all: the nonsense in policing and the nonsense in the community that is hurting us all. But it feels like the community issue is something that no one wants to touch,” said Antoine Towers, chair of the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition, a non-law enforcement collective striving to interrupt cycles of violence, and a member of the city’s task force.

Once California’s shelter-in-place order began, gun violence in the San Francisco Bay Area began to creep upward, and by the end of 2020 homicides, mostly by firearm, were up 35% compared with the year before. The increase was exceptionally painful in Oakland where gun deaths had been on a steady decline since 2012 and were on track to reach record lows until 2020.

So far this year, 29 people have been murdered in the city, 22 more deaths than last year in the same time period, according to the police department.

This period of gun violence led five Black members of Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce to write a letter to the group’s 12 other members expressing their concern that “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”.

“I support the goal of defunding. It’s necessary and we can’t keep spending half of our general fund on police. But the reality is that people are dying,” said John Jones III, taskforce member and one of the letter’s signatories. Jones lives in East Oakland, which has long struggled with gun violence and safety issues. He worries that divestment from police is outpacing the creation of surefire alternatives that have the capacity to deal with the city’s gun violence, homelessness, and quality of life issues.

“I’m not building a case for policing, I just want people to understand the gravity,” Jones said. “We have to demonstrate why police aren’t the best option but we have to approach it like methadone: by weaning people off of police.”

In 2019, APTP launched Mental Health First, an independent mental health response program. The first branch launched in Sacramento in early 2020 and another in Oakland was born later in the year. Through the program, a paramedic, mental health professional and security personnel are dispatched to the scenes of crises ranging from domestic violence to psychiatric emergencies in lieu of police.

Brooks hopes that this program and similar models will be scaled up and implemented at the scenes of shootings and available in the aftermath.

“Marginalized folks are dealing with heavy amounts of trauma from living in communities where violence happens but when a shooting happens we send 8,000 cops but no trauma counselors,” Brooks said.

Now elements of this abolitionist ideal are being codified in city government. Earlier this week, Oakland’s city council voted to create the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, known as Macro, a civilian first responder team housed within the city’s fire department. Trained in medicine and mental health, the team will respond to 911 calls where there isn’t a threat of violence, many of which could involve helping people experiencing mental health crises. The Macro program is being funded with $1.8m that could have otherwise gone to policing.

Oakland organizers insist that these difficult conversations do not represent an impasse that leaves the most vulnerable with abysmal options: either keep police in neighborhoods at the current or higher levels or defund and be subject to shootings and violent crime.

“Defunding was a national campaign but it’s a local process,” Jones, the UC Berkeley professor, said. “Even with the outright dismissal of Defund the work is continuing, and we’re beginning to see the kind of policy changes that we wouldn’t have seen had the summer of 2020 not been what it was.”

Abené Clayton

Abené Clayton is a reporter for the Guardian.