Credit: Pete Rosos

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Update: on July 2, 2021 we included additional information made public by the City Council that clarifies how the police department budget was actually increased by $38.5 million in the new city budget compared to the previous two-year plan.

In a six-to-two vote, the Oakland City Council approved the city’s next two-year budget on Thursday, deciding how to spend $3.8 billion on police, fire, roads, parks, homeless services, affordable housing, cultural grants, youth programs, and much more.

What’s in the 2021-2023 city budget?

  • To understand what’s in the budget that was just approved by City Council, start by looking at Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed policy budget. Most of what Schaaf recommended is included in the council’s final budget.
  • The council did make changes based on Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas’s recommendations. These were amendments to Schaaf’s proposal. Look here to see what Bas removed from Schaaf’s budget plan, and what Bas added.
  • The council also adopted 27 budget policy directives, which spell out how the City Administrator will implement the final budget over the next two years.

The decision capped an intense year of debate about whether to significantly cut police spending so that more funds can be freed up for other kinds of programs that many people believe can better address the root causes of crime, while shrinking the footprint of law enforcement and preventing violent encounters and racial disparities that are caused by policing.

The Oakland City Council did not vote to “defund” the police. In the end, the council maintained historic levels of police spending and did not follow through with intentions they endorsed last summer to seek dramatic cuts of up to 50%, or $150 million from the police budget.

The previous budget approved by the City Council for the two-year period from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2021 included $665 million for the police department. This was about 20% of Oakland’s total spending. The new budget includes $674 million for the police department, which will account for 18% of the city’s total expenditures.

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and her budget team issued a press release on July 2, a week after the budget vote, clarifying that the 2019-2021 total police budget was in fact lower than $665 million because of midcycle-adjustments made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The actual budgeted amount of spending for OPD over this two year period was $635 million. When this is taken into account, the new police department budget of $674 million is a $38 million increase, not a cut as many media reports have stated.

Even with the increase to police spending, the new budget also includes large amounts of funding for policing alternatives that several councilmembers described as a first step. These programs, they hope, will grow over time and eventually displace the need for large numbers of police. About $18.5 million in funds for these alternatives was taken out of Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed $27 million increase for the police department. The much smaller increase to OPD’s budget will result in the freezing of about 50 police officer positions that are responsible for responding to 911 calls.

“We are really holding the line here in terms of what we have been doing, and we are making a deeper investment in violence prevention, and we are calling for some accountability,” said Bas during debate before the budget vote.

Mayor Libby Schaaf praised the council’s “bold investments to reimagine public safety through violence prevention and non-police strategies,” but she also said that, in her view, the new budget will “destroy” the city’s existing public safety system, which is based on police patrols and 911 response.

“Unfortunately, it also cuts 50 police officers who respond to Oaklanders’ 911 calls and enforce traffic safety. It also cuts much-needed future academies, which will significantly reduce police staffing and delay response to Oaklanders in their time of crisis,” Schaaf said in a press release sent immediately after the council vote. “It will force our officers to work even more overtime shifts, which are expensive and unsafe for officers and residents alike.”

At a press conference after the vote, City Council President Nikki Fotunato Bas said her budget responds to the demands of most Oakland residents for a new kind of public safety system and marks a “historic moment.” 

“After the brutal killing of George Floyd, after five years and more of organizing among activists for police accountability, for transformative justice, Oakland went through a process to reimagine safety,” said Bas. “And on this day, on June 24, we actually are doing something about it. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

The final budget approved yesterday is based on a proposal that Schaaf introduced in May which was later amended by Bas, with support from District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo, and District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb.

District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao and at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan joined these four in passing Bas’s budget.

District 7 Councilmember Treva Reid and District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor voted against Bas’s amendments. 

In the days leading up to the vote, many of the councilmembers and the mayor urged their constituents to rally to their side. Both Reid and Taylor said during yesterday’s hearing that they’ve gotten a lot of feedback from deep East Oakland residents opposed to any changes that could potentially result in OPD having fewer officers and not responding to some calls for service as fast as they do now.

Taylor echoed concerns raised earlier this year by a handful of members of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force—a commission set up by the city council to brainstorm ways of reducing reliance on police—that if cuts are made to OPD before proven alternatives are scaled up, violence could rise.

“We have a significant portion of our population that feels we’re forcing them to jump out of an airplane with a needle, thread, and some material, and sew their parachute before they land. That is not something I can tell them to do,” Taylor said.

Over the past year, as the reimagining task force did its work and the council considered policing alternatives, many people made the point that it’s probably impossible to fund non-police alternatives at the scale necessary to have any positive impact without reducing police spending, which is the single largest departmental outlay for Oakland.

Thao offered a third view, saying that Council President Bas’s budget maintains police spending and funds the regular two academies per year, while also making major investments in alternatives. “We need to reject this false choice between a police force or a community-driven response. They’re not mutually exclusive,” said Thao.

The biggest changes Bas and her colleagues made to the mayor’s budget include a reduction in the number of police academies that will be held over the next two years from six to four, and the freezing of police 911 surge units in fiscal year 2022-2023. Police academies are used to train new officers and are the main way OPD maintains or grows the number of police working for the city. OPD’s 911 surge units provide additional officers on top of regular patrols to respond to emergency calls. 

Bas’s budget also cut the addition of a second police traffic squad that Mayor Schaaf wanted. The decision to eliminate the 911 surge units and traffic squad will result in the freezing of 50 police officer positions compared to Schaaf’s original budget plan, changes that will take effect starting in July 2022.

According to Schaaf and City Administrator Ed Reiskin, the elimination of the two extra police academies will result in a shrinking police department due to the fact that each police academy only adds about 17 officers to the department, while a larger number of officers leave each year due to retirement, transferring out to another employer, being fired, or for other reasons.

Reiskin told the councilmembers that he believes their decision will cause the department to not be able to fully staff programs that have broad support and aren’t the intended target of budget adjustments. “It will not allow us to fill Ceasefire and investigations positions,” he said, referring to OPD’s gun violence program and homicide and robbery investigators. “We will not be able to fill those under this proposal, and as our numbers dwindle we will have fewer officers willing to work the amount of overtime needed just to work that gap.”

Fife disagreed and said she doesn’t think adding police officers to the department will improve public safety, and that the administration isn’t taking into account how new investments in alternatives could do jobs formerly done by the police. “A lot of the information we’re hearing today is misinformation and I feel like it’s deeply rooted in fear,” she said after Reiskin’s comments.

The council’s reductions to police spending free up about $18.5 million over the next two years, and combined with other revenue, this will be used to expand funding for the Department of Violence Prevention by 50%, from the approximately $35 million Schaaf proposed to $52 million over the next two years. The DVP, which was established in 2017, employs civilian violence interrupters and life coaches who work directly with people affected by gun violence, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and other forms of trauma.

The MACRO pilot, a plan to use unarmed civilian employees within the fire department to respond to nonviolent 911 calls, also received a big boost under the council’s budget. Schaaf’s original proposal was to spend $2.6 million on MACRO, but the project will now get $6.2 million.

Boosting the budget of the Department of Violence Prevention was an idea endorsed by Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, as was the MACRO pilot program.

The policy directives approved by the council, which guide how the City Administrator is to implement the budget, require an audit of the police department and a process to transfer non-violent, non-criminal calls for service away from OPD so that they can be handled by other city departments. According to Bas, if OPD becomes more focused on responding to violent crimes, it will not need the same level of resources it currently receives to effectively serve Oakland.

After the council meeting, Bas, Fife, and Kalb held a press conference in downtown Oakland. Bas said the budget vote is a historic shift in how Oakland approaches public safety, moving away from police that address the symptoms of poverty and inequality and toward investments that can lift up communities of color and address the root causes of crime and violence.

The council also voted to more than double the number of homeless camps that will receive sanitation services from 47 to 107 and to boost funding for cultural events and arts programs.

“Until we invest in the communities that have been disenfranchised from day one, the marginalized groups, the Black folks, the brown folks, the Asian folks, poor people, until we invest in them, then the trauma that these communities have experienced will be replicated.” said Fife.

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.