A police officer patrolling Lake Merritt in April. Credit: Amir Aziz

You may have heard somewhere that the Oakland Police Department accounts for half of the city’s annual budget. Or maybe you’ve seen a different number floating around, and you’re confused about the facts.

The question of how much Oakland spends on its police has gained special relevance over the past 12 months, as calls to “defund” police departments and invest more in other programs have resounded across the nation, alongside protests against police brutality.  

Last year, the City Council set a goal of reducing OPD’s share of general fund spending by half and reinvesting this money into social services, housing, and non-police safety programs. To map out how this massive shift might work, the council set up the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, a panel of volunteers that recently approved a list of recommendations. 

Others don’t support making large cuts to the police budget because they feel Oakland’s police services are already inadequate, especially given the city’s relatively low ratio of police officers to violent crimes. Some worry that cutting the police budget could reduce 911 response times and impair investigations of major crimes.

The City Council has committed itself to reducing police spending, and the councilmembers, mayor, and city administrator are currently sorting through competing visions and priorities as they prepare the city’s next two-year budget, which the City Council will vote on in June.

So how much does Oakland currently spend on police? Does it spend more than other nearby cities? Has spending gone up over the years? How does Oakland’s ratio of police officers to crimes compare to its neighbors? We dug into public records and city financial reports to help you make sense of a notoriously complex topic.

How much of Oakland’s budget is spent on policing?

Last year, Oakland spent $338 million on its police department, according to the city’s Comprehensive Annual Finance Report. This was about 22% of the city’s entire budget, most of it going to police officers’ salaries. 

So why do many people claim—on social media, during public forums, and so on—that Oakland spends closer to half of its budget on OPD? 

The confusion stems from the fact that Oakland’s budget is actually split into two parts. There’s one really big pot of money called the general fund, which the City Council can choose to spend any number of ways over the course of the year. Money in this fund comes from property taxes, sales taxes, hotel taxes, and other revenue sources.

Then there’s another, even bigger pot of money that’s divided into a bunch of smaller “restricted” funds, meaning that money can only be spent in certain predetermined ways. 

In 2020, the city spent $764 million out of its general fund. The police department accounted for $322 million of that, or about 42%. The rest of the general fund was split between other city departments like fire, human services, parks and recreation, and the library. OPD is by far the largest city department in terms of general spending.

That other pot of money, Oakland’s restricted funds, have slightly more money between them than the general fund, about $790 million in total. There are dozens of these types of restricted funds, and they get money through special taxes, fees, and other sources that have to be spent on specific purposes.

For instance, there’s the city’s development services fund, which raises money through fees paid by developers and contractors for construction permits and pays for Oakland’s Department of Planning and Building. Then there’s the Sewer Service Fund, which raises money from sewer bills paid by property owners and is used to repair sewers. 

It’s important to note that portions of a few of these funds are used to boost OPD’s budget, like the Measure Z fund, which raises about $29 million each year from a special parcel and parking tax. Last year, the Oakland police department received 53% of Measure Z funds, about $15.6 million.

Open Budget Oakland has a very helpful visualization of how the general fund and all the restricted funds are channeled into various departments and spent. Last year, OPD received about $16 million in funding from restricted funds.

It’s relatively simple for the City Council to make big sweeping decisions over the course of a year about how it spends money from the general fund. But making changes to the way restricted funds work, and what they can be spent on, is a whole different ball game. It would have to happen at the ballot box, where voters would have to decide whether or not to amend the city charter, and state laws may need to be accounted for as well.

The key takeaway: if you see people claiming that OPD eats up nearly half of Oakland’s budget, know that that’s not accurate. If you add up the general fund and restricted funds, the police department accounts for closer to 22% of city spending. You may still think that’s too high—or too low—but you’ll be operating with a better set of facts.

Does Oakland spend more on police than other cities?

Measured in most ways, yes.

In dollar terms, Oakland spends much more on police than the other 13 incorporated cities in Alameda County. That’s because Oakland is the biggest city in the county, with the biggest budget. Oakland accounted for 40% of the combined $833 million in police spending by all 14 cities last year. The city with the second-highest police budget was Fremont, at $89 million. Fremont is also the second-largest city in the county.

If you were to divide all of the money Oakland spent last year on policing by the number of people living in the city, it would come to $782 per resident. Across Alameda County, that puts Oakland just behind Emeryville, where per capita police spending is $1,356. Albany, Fremont, Dublin, Pleasanton, and Union City spend about half of what Oakland does for police services on a per capita basis.

In terms of the proportion of its general fund budget spent on police, Oakland’s 42% was the third-highest among Alameda County cities last year, with Fremont and Hayward paying a few percentage points more.

Has Oakland always spent this much on its police?

As a share of the city’s total budget, including restricted funds, police spending has grown slightly over the past two decades. We looked at Oakland’s financial reports and found that in 1998, about 17% of Oakland’s total budget was spent on the police. This grew slowly and peaked at 29% in 2013 before dropping back to about 22% today.

As a share of the general fund, the same trend is clear: In 1998, the police department accounted for about 37% of expenditures and today it accounts for 42%.

The number of police officers employed by Oakland has shifted dramatically over the years alongside the city’s overall economic health. We reviewed past news coverage in local papers like the San Francisco Examiner and Oakland Tribune to get a rough picture of how police spending has changed across the years.

In 1973, Oakland had 722 officers and a total police budget of $18 million, the equivalent of about $111 million today.

The late 1970s were tough economic times for Oakland as industries left the city and tax revenues declined. The City Council had to repeatedly cut the city budget and raise local business taxes. After Proposition 13 passed in 1978, Oakland faced enormous budget deficits. In 1980, the city slashed spending across all of its departments, including the police, which saw the number of officers reduced from 683 to 633.

In Oakland, police violence was just as controversial in the late 1970s as it is today, but calls to defund OPD weren’t embraced by as many residents or elected officials. Instead, calls to pay more for policing were gaining steam. In 1980, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner reported that support was growing to use a special property tax to fund the police at an additional $12 million per year, equal to $41 million today. The idea was especially popular “in the city’s conservative hills area.” But Oakland voters rejected the tax the next year.

Budget deficits continued in the 1980s. By 1982, Oakland had laid off 1,000 city staffers since the passage of Proposition 13 and closed several library branches and fire stations. 

By 1987, Oakland was facing a $10 million deficit from its $172 million operating budget, of which the police accounted for 40% of all spending. There were 594 officers employed by the city. The city boosted police spending in the early 1990s and built the department’s ranks back up to 700 officers.

When Jerry Brown became mayor in 1998, he proposed a budget that boosted police spending by 22%, including hiring 56 new officers. Ever since then, OPD expenditures have accounted for an annual average of 41% of the general fund budget.

In the city’s last approved budget, the council set aside funds to pay for the equivalent of 792 full-time police officers, although the actual number of officers at any given point in the year goes up and down as officers retire, quit, or are fired and hired.

Does Oakland have more crime and fewer officers than other cities?

About seven violent crimes were reported for every police officer employed by Oakland in 2019, according to FBI data compiled by Oakland’s city administrator. This rate was more than double San Francisco’s and significantly higher than Sacramento and San Jose.

Oakland has 35 police officers on patrol at any given hour, a number that the city administrator believes is “woefully inadequate in consideration of the number of calls for service and unacceptable crime rate in Oakland.”

But others think OPD is mismanaged, and say that officers can be taken off jobs like enforcing low-level traffic laws. If more officers are reassigned to focus on violent crime and emergencies, they say, the department may not need to claim as much of the city’s current budget.

“While there’s a hue and cry about the lack of quick response to 911 calls in deep East Oakland, to me this is not about hiring more police,” said David Kakishiba, one of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force members, in an interview. “This is about a reallocation of the department’s current resources.”

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.