Oakland City Hall. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

This past Saturday’s mass shooting at a Juneteenth celebration at Lake Merritt has rocked the Oakland community and intensified the debate about how to best ensure public safety.

Police have yet to arrest the suspected shooter that killed Dashawn Rhoades, a 22-year-old resident of San Francisco and Oakland, and wounded seven others. The shooting was one of the most recent during a violent year in which 60 people have been killed so far.

The City Council is set to vote tomorrow on its two-year budget, which will determine how much funding the police department will receive. 

The two sides of the debate—those that want more police presence, and those who want to reduce police funding to invest in violence prevention and non-police solutions—are stepping up their efforts to drive support ahead of the vote.

On Monday, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said at a press conference that the shooting justifies a greater police presence in parts of Oakland like Lake Merritt.

“There’s been mixed messages in this community, several people who said they didn’t want officers around the lake,” Armstrong said. “But we’ve seen what can happen when you have large crowds of people and you don’t know if they’re armed or not.”

Also on Monday, Oakland Police Officers Association President Barry Donelan said in a press release that “the litany of violent crime victims has already demonstrated that Oakland’s ‘defund the police’ strategy has failed,” and he urged residents to tune into Thursday’s City Council budget hearing to demand more police spending.

Cat Brooks, a vocal activist who leads the Anti Police-Terror Project, which advocates reducing police spending to build up alternative violence prevention programs, criticized the police union and chief in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed writing, “Like clockwork, detractors of the defund the police movement claimed incidents like these are why Black communities need more cops, more control, more surveillance.”

Contrary to what the police union claimed in its press release, the city has yet to make large cuts to the police department. However, the City Council voted last year to seek reductions of as high as $150 million from OPD’s general fund allocation in order to “reimagine” public safety through other efforts that can probably only be funded if OPD takes up a smaller slice of the budget. A task force explored ways to do this, sending recommendations to the council earlier this year.

Mayor Libby Schaaf’s budget proposal, published in May, ignored the council’s call to significantly reduce police spending. While her plan incorporated modest funding for a few of the task force’s ideas to step up violence prevention, it wouldn’t cut OPD’s budget—in fact, she proposed increasing it by $27 million over the next two years. Schaaf has argued that any significant cuts to the police budget will result in reduced 911 response times and fewer officers on patrol.

Last week, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas countered with her own budget plan, which would trim $18 million in police spending in order to pay more for alternatives like the city’s MACRO pilot program, which will send civilian first responders to non-violent 911 emergencies, and the city’s Department of Violence Prevention, which uses counselors, life coaches, and violence interrupters to try to steer people away from engaging in violence. Bas called her plan a start to what could become a much bigger shift of resources to non-police first responders and city departments that focus on housing, parks, and youth services.

Although both the Schaaf and Bas budget proposals would spend over $300 million each year on the police, the differences between the two are big enough that the mayor and council president’s supporters are issuing dire warnings about what could happen if their plan is rejected.

Yesterday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sent an email alert to her supporters asking them to urge the City Council to support higher levels of police staffing, and to support a specific proposal by District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor seeking a compromise on the question of how many police academies, which train new officers, to fund in the next two-year budget. Schaaf’s budget plan calls for the creation of two new police academies, which would raise the total number of academies to six, the number she says are needed to maintain the city’s current police staffing level of about 717 sworn officers. Bas’s budget proposal would support four academies (the city’s normal number) and use the $7.5 million it would cost to run two others to boost the Department of Violence Prevention’s budget. Taylor wants five police academies, with the fifth paid for only if additional revenues materialize next year.

According to Schaaf’s email alert, Bas’s plan would “significantly cut the police budget, decimating 911 response and reducing officer staffing levels significantly.”

Bas rejects this view. She wrote in a lengthy email alert of her own today that “half of Oakland’s police resources are spent on patrols—responding to 911 calls—yet 75% of those 911 calls are for low-level, non-criminal incidents.” She believes police can focus more on responding to violent crimes and that other calls for service can better be handled by non-police first responders, all without reducing 911 response times.

Taylor sent his own email blasts out yesterday and this morning. “During the pandemic, East Oakland also saw a stark increase in public safety issues including increased levels of gun violence, sideshow activities, and armed robberies,” he wrote. “This increase reinforces the need for us to ensure that Oaklanders have a rapid response when they call for help in a public safety emergency.”

On Tuesday evening, Councilmembers Bas and Fife called for a vigil at the Lake Merritt Pergola to mourn the victims of recent shootings and to rally their supporters who want to see bigger investments in non-police services.

“Now more than ever, we have to invest much more deeply in violence prevention, in preventing violence long before it even happens,” said Bas. “When we think of violence, yes it’s gun violence which we have to eradicate from our country and this town, but it’s also the violence of poverty and disinvestment.”

Thursday’s City Council budget meeting begins at 10:30 a.m. and you can join by following this link.

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.