Oakland City Hall. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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A majority of Oakland City Council on Tuesday approved adding an extra police academy to this year’s budget to help boost the number of officers patrolling city streets. The move signals a change in course for the city, which has been debating over the past year and a half whether or not to defund policing and reinvest its budget in non-police programs.

In June, the City Council rejected Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposal to fund six academies over the two years and instead approved four police academies in the city’s two-year budget. The approved budget increased police funding by $38 million but also froze 55 police positions as well as directed $18 million to invest in the city’s Violence Prevention Department and civilian response to mental health crises through a new program called MACRO. 

But amid a rise in shootings and homicides, the City Council on Tuesday approved a proposal from District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao to add an academy this year and explore adding another one in 2022. 

The 6-2 vote—council members Carroll Fife and Nikki Fortunado Bas dissented —came the same week Oakland recorded its 100th homicide of the year. 

Thao’s proposal uses savings from vacancies in academies from 2021 to pay for an extra class of recruits next year and directs City Administrator Ed Reiskin to come back to a future council meeting with more information about what it would cost to add a sixth academy next year. The cost of training a class of officers ranges between $3.4 and $4 million, and the city estimates it saved hundreds of thousands of dollars due to low enrollment in academies that began this year. 

Thao had voted against adding more academies in June but on Tuesday said she has heard from residents who say that 911 calls for crimes, including shootings, get no response. Because of the savings, she said it is no longer a decision between adding more cops versus funding violence prevention. The city can do both, Thao said. 

One concern the city has faced is the potential of losing millions of dollars in revenue from Measure Z, a voter-approved 2014 parcel tax that funds police and fire services as well as violence prevention programs. Under Measure Z, if the number of sworn police officers falls below 678 then the city is legally no longer allowed to collect the parcel tax revenue, which is $26 million this year and $28 million next year. Most Measure Z funding goes to the police department, but the fire department and violence prevention programs also receive millions from the tax. 

As of Tuesday, OPD had 694 officers, Reiskin told the City Council, but he noted that the number of officers leaving the department recently jumped from about five a month to nine or 10 a month.  

Funding would not stop right away. Reiskin and Ryan Richardson of the City Attorney’s Office said there are exceptions under Measure Z to prevent or postpone the loss of funding. If OPD staffing were to drop under the measure’s threshold, City Council would have 90 days to ask for an exemption and declare it needed time to amend its hiring and retention plan for police officers. 

Currently, OPD has an academy class scheduled to graduate at the end of the year and is planning to begin another in November. The academy funded by Tuesday’s resolution would start in early 2022, Chief LeRonne Armstrong told council. 

Thao’s proposal also calls for OPD to enhance its efforts to recruit local residents from diverse backgrounds, something the department has attempted to do over the years with limited success. 

Chief Armstrong said OPD is continuing its partnership with Merritt College, and plans to strengthen relationships with Holy Names University, CSU East Bay and the Contra Costa Community College District. Armstrong said OPD has also reached out to Laney College’s athletic department to seek recruits. 

The resolution approved last night also asks the city to explore providing childcare to academy trainees. 

Bas, who represents District 2, said she could not support the resolution without seeing more data. Police officials, Bas said, have not explained how spending more money on police makes for safer streets. 

“We have to stop this pattern of allocating more and more funds to OPD without data that shows effectiveness, accountability and results and for those reasons I am voting no on this item.” 

Fife, who represents District 3, said the city should be investing more money into prevention programs. “We are using people’s pain to justify further investment in a system that has not proved to return the level of investment,” Fife said. “If we care for people on the front end, we will not have a need for policing on the back end.” 

District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor framed the vote as a win for a policy he supported during the budget negotiations earlier this year. In June, Taylor offered a plan that would have had the city run three police academies in the 2021 to 2022 fiscal year, and one academy in the 2022 to 2023 fiscal year, with the option of adding a second academy to that year if revenues appeared strong enough to pay for it.

“The circumstances of the residents I represent in East Oakland have not changed since the council rejected our call for a comprehensive public safety response in June and no new information has been presented that was not previously available,” Taylor said in a press release. “From the beginning, I have been consistent in my advocacy for investments throughout the public safety ecosystem, which includes both violence prevention and response.”

David DeBolt reports on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.