Credit: Amir Aziz

When the COVID-19 crisis overtook us two years ago, social policies long thought impossible were suddenly pursued with urgency. Emergency health orders closed schools and workplaces. Evictions were blocked. Cars disappeared from roads. Millions of free meals were distributed to children and families. The government purchased hotels to house the homeless and infused people’s bank accounts with stimulus checks to pay rent and buy medicine.

Then, yet another crisis shook the firmaments. A Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd and officers in Kentucky killed Breonna Taylor. These Black Americans’ deaths ignited unprecedented protests and civil unrest across the United States, including in Oakland. Millions marched against police violence and structural racism.

More fundamental assumptions were questioned. Do more police make us safe? Are there better ways to prevent crime? Reforms were pursued across the 50 states. Nationwide, a record number of police officers were charged with murder in 2021. Controversial tactics like chokeholds were banned in several states. Attorneys general across the country were empowered to investigate police abuses. Oversight boards were established or strengthened in many cities.

Previously marginalized ideas about public safety entered mainstream discourse. Not only was it newly possible for political leaders to talk about freeing prisoners and eliminating bail, these ideas were put into practice in places like Alameda County. 

During those frantic months of reckoning, Oakland was among a handful of cities where calls to rebalance public safety priorities reached new decibels. After weeks of debate, the Oakland City Council issued a bold statement in June: they intended to eventually reduce police spending by $150 million—half of the police department’s yearly budget—and reinvest the savings in housing, health, and economic development programs. 

To achieve this, they set up a new task force, comprised of civilians and public officials, with a mandate to reimagine public safety. A year later, in the summer of 2021, the City Council made historic investments in non-police safety programs.

But the tide has turned.

Homicides spiked in Oakland and other cities over the past two years. Asian-American residents in communities like Oakland’s Chinatown feel increasingly targeted and unsafe. Burglaries, carjackings, and rape have all increased. Fentanyl and meth overdoses continue to claim the lives of hundreds in the Bay Area each year. A recent Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce poll showed 70% of likely voters feel “less safe” today, the highest percentage since the group began asking the question in 2009.

At the national level, the midterm elections are about the faltering economy, inflation, war in Ukraine, and reproductive rights. But they’re also a referendum on crime, with echoes of backlashes of the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s: “soft on crime” Democrats have encouraged violence and disorder through misguided policies, their opponents claim, especially in the big cities they govern. (This ignores the fact that murders also increased by large amounts in many rural areas and states and cities governed by Republicans.) 

In Oakland, this election is about public safety—especially the mayor’s race. Issues like homelessness and housing play a big role, to be sure, but residents consistently say the next mayor should address violent crime. Business leaders gathered two weeks ago downtown to deplore “crime that is rampant” in the city, urging officials to boost police patrols. Four candidates have taken the group’s pledge to hire more cops. In campaign mailers and at town halls, some have described a state of “unchecked lawlessness,” calling for a “get tough on crime” approach and for the city to use all its “prevention, deterrence, and enforcement tools.” 

The local debate follows national contours, albeit with moderate Democrats and independents in Oakland taking the position that progressive policies have made things worse. Some of the mayoral candidates echo outgoing Mayor Libby Schaaf, who said in February that calls to “defund” the police and reinvest in social programs “went too far.” They insist that cops need to feel freshly empowered to crack down on crime and disorder and that some of the policies put in place over the past 20 years to rein in police abuses should be undone. 

Other candidates say we still need deeper transformations to ameliorate the root causes of crime without policing, but this message carries like a whisper compared to the roar of reform two years ago.

The outcome of the mayor’s race will shed light on the question of how large numbers of Oakland residents feel now, two-and-a-half years after millions marched in the George Floyd protests, about rising violence and crime and its potential solutions. Do most Oaklanders want to preserve a system where policing is our primary response to crime and violence? Or are most voters still seeking large-scale alternatives to the police? We’ll have a better sense after the ballots are counted.

Meanwhile, as the mayor’s race nears the finish line, misinformation and misconceptions have spread about some of the candidates’ records, the city’s spending on its police department, and Oakland’s brief recent experiment with reimagining public safety.

Did Oakland defund its police department? Did the City Council transform how public safety works in Oakland? Oakland is getting a new mayor next year; what do job seekers say they’ll do to OPD’s budget? To help voters better understand this pivotal issue, we interviewed all the candidates, examined their records, and looked into the recent history of policing and public safety in Oakland.

Oakland mayoral candidates on public safety

From left to right, top to bottom: Tyron Jordan, Treva Reid, Loren Taylor, Sheng Thao, Seneca Scott, Ignacio De La Fuente, Allyssa Victory, John Reimann, Greg Hodge. Credit: Amir Aziz, Jordan and Reimann photos courtesy of the candidates.

Two of the candidates, former District 5 councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente and small business owner Seneca Scott, are running on law and order platforms that emphasize rapidly growing the police department and more aggressive enforcement.

According to his website, public safety is the centerpiece of De La Fuente’s tough talk campaign. He paints a bleak picture of Oakland, calling it “a place where people are afraid to walk the streets […] where seniors are assaulted and robbed in broad daylight, a place where unauthorized sideshows are constant throughout the city and where children are being shot and killed.”

De La Fuente said in his interview with us that Oakland needs a minimum of 750 to 800 police officers, and the cops need to hear that City Hall has their back. “It’s even more important to give them the political support for them to do the job,” he told us. 

When he was a councilmember in 2010 and 2011, De La Fuente supported youth curfews and gang injunctions (civil lawsuits that prohibited alleged gang members from associating with each other, spending time in certain neighborhoods, and other conduct). In a recent interview, he criticized policies currently in place that limit police chases, which can be dangerous to bystanders. He told us, “sometimes you have to do whatever you need to,” and that he would use these tactics and tools like surveillance cameras.

Scott’s top priority, according to his website, is “law and order.” He underscored this in his interview with The Oaklandside, telling us he believes “we’ve lost rule of law” and that the only way to get it back is through enforcement. He blames Oakland’s problems on “woke progressives” who tried to “defund” OPD.

Oakland needs 900 officers, Scott said. “People are coming from around our state and our geographic region to rob Oaklanders.” He warned of “predators” who have come to Oakland because they know the city’s police force is understaffed.

De La Fuente, Scott, and several other candidates’ ambitious police staffing goals would require the city to spend tens of millions more in the coming years. Each police academy costs about $4 million and adds about 24 officers. To get to 800 officers from the current staffing level of 680, Oakland would need to fund at least five additional academies at a cost of around $20 million. And the City Council would also need to put an additional $30 million in the budget each year to pay these officers’ salaries and benefits. In total, staffing up to these will require spending at least $50 million extra on police in the next budget.

Loren Taylor and Treva Reid haven’t made public safety the main focus of their campaigns in quite the same way, but they agree that OPD should get more resources.

Taylor believes OPD needs 800 officers. According to his public safety plan, the way to get there is to increase OPD’s budget to hold more police academies and to increase lateral hires from other departments. He believes officers leave OPD because of “unnecessary bureaucracy” that he would eliminate. He also supports “investing in technology solutions to improve efficiency and effectiveness,” including things like license plate reader cameras for mass surveillance of cars and cameras in commercial districts.

Reid also supports more surveillance using license plate readers and security cameras, and if elected, she promises to “immediately fund more police academies,” according to her website. She said in her interview with us that alternatives to policing should also get a bigger piece of the budget. “We need to double our investment in the Department of Violence Prevention,” Reid said, adding that MACRO, the city’s civilian team that responds to nonviolent emergencies, should be expanded to a 24/7 program. Taylor voiced similar support for DVP and MACRO.

Sheng Thao said that as mayor, she would ensure OPD reaches its authorized staffing level, assess how that changes 911 response times, and then consider whether or not to dedicate a larger chunk of the next city budget toward the police. “We promised voters 752, so I want to fill those vacancies,” she said in an interview. 

Thao said she’ll invest more in the Department of Violence Prevention and MACRO, and she criticized Taylor and Reid for not supporting these departments in the budget the council approved in June 2021. “My opponents [Taylor and Reid] are running against me and have flip-flopped on the Department of Violence Prevention portion of public safety,” she said.

Taylor criticized Thao similarly last year, saying she flip-flopped on the issue of funding more police academies after Thao introduced legislation in September 2021 to pay for two additional classes of recruits. Thao did this three months after she voted against the two additional academies that Mayor Libby Schaaf proposed in the budget and against a plan by Taylor to pay for five.

Allysa Victory and Greg Hodge take the view that more cops may not be necessary. Hodge said in his interview with us that a force of 700 officers might suffice to reduce OPD’s need to use overtime to fill patrol shifts and other assignments. He said he’d like OPD to focus on violent crimes and investigations while other first responders like MACRO take on an increasing number of calls for service. 

But Hodge’s approach to public safety runs counter to De La Fuente and Scott’s in the sense that Hodge is all about investing in preventative programs that address the root causes of crime and violence. “Law enforcement is what we do to people, and public safety is what we do with people. That’s the mantra from me and how we should be thinking about public safety,” he told us.

Victory told us she doesn’t believe there’s any “magical number” of officers that would make Oakland safe. “We’ve budgeted enough staff, and I’m committed to filling the vacancies that we have, but I think at this time, with the performance metrics that we’ve seen from our currently staffed department, that we don’t need to expand or increase any staffing,” she said about OPD.

Like Hodge, she views public safety major investments in non-police programs as the foundation of public safety. Victory said the Department of Violence Prevention should be given more funding and a bigger role.

Hiring more officers wouldn’t be a priority for Tyron Jordan. “We have seen an uptick in crime, but I don’t think adding more police will prevent crime,” he told us in an interview. “From what I’ve read, every study I’ve ever read, increasing the number of police officers [doesn’t have an impact]. Police officers respond [to reported crimes]. I don’t see how increasing their numbers to 700, 800, or 900 would actually stop crime.” But he supports current efforts like Ceasefire and the Department of Violence Prevention.

John Reimann has the most radical view. A socialist who emphasizes the need for mass movements to make change, he said his public safety plan is to create “community-run and community-elected committees of public safety” to replace the police. These committees “would patrol and walk the streets 24/7 and be on call to defuse” violent incidents.

Did Oakland defund its police? A widespread misperception

Credit: Amir Aziz

You’ve probably encountered claims that Oakland defunded its police department last year and that this explains Oakland’s rising crime. You’ve possibly also heard that some of the people running for mayor are responsible for defunding the police.

The truth is that OPD was never defunded. Oakland spent roughly $678 million on OPD in the current two-year budget, which funds the city through June. This was a slight increase over the $667 million OPD got in the last budget, which covered July 2019 through June 2021.

Historically, OPD has accounted for about 40% of Oakland’s general-purpose fund spending each year, and this hasn’t changed in the last couple years; the current budget gives OPD 42% of the general-purpose fund.

Over the past 24 years, OPD’s budget has gone down from the previous budget only a couple of times, and the biggest cuts were a result of the Great Recession in 2010 and 2011, according to our review of the city’s financial reports

The average yearly increase to the police department’s budget was $10 million over the same period of time; it went up about the same amount in the current budget. 

So why do so many people believe OPD was defunded?

Credit: Amir Aziz

They may be referring to the fact that, while OPD’s funding did in fact go up in the last budget, it didn’t go up by as much as some city leaders wanted.

Mayor Schaaf’s proposed 2021-2023 budget, which she sent to the council in May 2021, would have given OPD a big budget increase to patch over the department’s inability to staff up and retain its officers. Schaaf’s budget would have paid for a couple of extra police academies (six instead of the usual four) and overtime for officers who would staff dozens of new 911-call surge unit positions and other roles to respond faster to calls for service.

Schaaf’s plan called for a $692 million allocation to the police in 2021—a very big jump from the previous budget.

A majority of city councilmembers had other ideas. This was the first two-year city budget that was crafted after 2020’s protests, and several councilmembers wanted to respond to calls from the public to fund alternatives to policing. While they largely agreed the police budget should go up, they voted against Schaaf’s extra-large police budget boost by freezing the mayor’s 911 surge units and extra police academies. 

These six councilmembers—Bas, Kaplan, Thao, Gallo, Kalb, and Fife—opted instead to increase spending across other departments, with the biggest winner being the Department of Violence Prevention, or DVP. 

Established in 2017, DVP attempts to prevent violent crime through a public health approach that uses violence interrupters, life coaches and counselors, and other resources to reduce trauma in the community and de-escalate conflicts. DVP got a $17 million budget increase under the councilmembers’ plan, for a total of $52 million. 

Even with this new support, DVP is a very small department compared to OPD. Its budget today is a mere 8% of the police department’s, and during its first year of existence, its budget was 800 times smaller than what the police department got.

Mayor Schaaf, OPD Chief Armstrong, the Oakland police union, and councilmembers Loren Taylor and Treva Reid were unhappy with this plan. Taylor and Reid voted against it, but couldn’t stop it from passing. Today, many continue to call it a “cut” to OPD even though it grew the police department’s budget, albeit by a smaller amount than what some city leaders had pushed for.

This misperception has been helped along by the fact that  some media badly misreported on the process of nailing down this budget, stating in headlines that Oakland “defunded” its police and linking spikes in violent crime to the supposed cuts. 

Statements from public officials have also muddied the waters. Oakland Police Officers’ Association President Sgt. Barry Donelan repeatedly claimed that OPD’s budget was cut, resulting in “mayhem on Oakland’s streets.”

To be sure, even though Oakland increased police spending in its current budget, the department hasn’t been able to provide the level of services city leaders have promised. For example, it can take about an hour for officers to respond to a reported robbery and almost two hours before they show up to investigate property crimes like burglary. Oakland’s city administrator has acknowledged in council meetings that this is due mainly to OPD’s difficulty in hiring and keeping police officers—not funding decisions made by the council.

Right now, the City Council has set aside enough money for OPD to have 752 officers, but there are only 680 on the force. The problem is attrition; officers constantly leave OPD to retire, take a job in another city, leave the profession altogether, or get fired for misconduct. To maintain its ranks, OPD has to run several police academies each year, but graduation rates have been low. And since 2020, it has been very hard to recruit new police officers; some experts say the national reckoning around the role of police in society has made it a less desirable job.

Plot twist: The council approved a plan—co-drafted by Loren Taylor—to eventually slash police spending in half

In 2020 and 2021, activists in Oakland called for bigger investments in public health, housing, and other policing alternatives. Credit: Pete Rosos

Even though the council never actually cut OPD’s budget, they did set a longer-term goal of slashing police spending by $150 million, or 50%.

It happened in June 2020, when the council made final adjustments to the 2019-2021 two-year budget. This was just weeks after a riot shattered downtown’s windows and armed caravans of burglars looted shops across the city, and after OPD tear gassed a youth-led protest to enforce a curfew. 

The Oakland City Council was confronted by a bleak fiscal situation. The COVID-19 shutdown meant the city was losing millions in revenue it needed to keep a balanced budget.

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who is running for reelection, proposed a cut of $25 million from OPD to help balance the budget and start on a path of redistributing resources away from the police to other public safety programs. 

Her suggestion was rejected in favor of a plan offered by Taylor and councilmembers Noel Gallo, Larry Reid, and Lynette Gibson McElhaney. (District 7 representative Reid retired later that year and was succeeded in 2021 by his daughter, Treva, and Gibson McElhaney would lose to Carroll Fife in the D3 race that fall.) Taylor and company’s plan made about $12 million in one-year reductions to OPD, but his proposal shared something in common with Bas’: he included the statement of intent to cut OPD’s share of the general purpose fund by 50%, or $150 million, in a future budget. To do this, Taylor and Bas wanted Oakland to set up a Reimagining Public Safety Task Force that would study changes to the city’s public safety system and come back to council in 2021 with recommendations.

The City Council approved this plan, with Taylor, Larry Reid, Gibson McElhaney, Gallo, and Kaplan voting for it. Bas voted no, calling it a “slap in the face” to residents who wanted big new investments in police alternatives now.

Thao abstained, saying she hadn’t been given enough time by her colleagues to fashion another option with Councilmember Dan Kalb.

Taylor’s position on police staffing and recent votes in favor of new technologies for OPD seems to indicate that, at this point, he isn’t planning to propose a major budget reallocation away from OPD to other departments. But he did tell us he believes the work of the Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce is unfinished.

“As the architect and co-chair of the reimagining public safety process, I think it’s important that we commit financially and in terms of real action to the next phase of moving the additional recommendations forward,” he said.

Thao, who never voted for cutting police spending in half, did vote for the budget that reallocated millions away from OPD to the Department of Violence Prevention.

What do Oakland voters—and local advocacy groups voters listen to—want?

Thao, Taylor, and Reid’s maneuvering on matters of police spending and city budgets has led some leading social-justice activist groups like the Anti Police-Terror Project to criticize all three. APTP has labeled Taylor and Reid “conservative allies” of Schaaf and called Thao a “moderate” because all three have been “backtracking on the city’s promise to reimagine public safety.” 

But other self-described progressive groups like Bay Rising Action position Thao as a candidate who will continue the work of deemphasizing the role of police within public safety, similar to what Hodge and Victory say they will do if elected.

Pro-police groups like the Coalition for a Better Oakland have branded Thao a “police defunder” and embraced the law-and-order candidate Scott, who will counter “woke politicians” by hiring 900 officers. The group lumps Taylor, De La Fuente, and Reid into its basket of preferred leaders.

It’s hard to imagine that any single advocacy group has its finger on Oakland voters’ pulse. The city is famously willing to embrace radical new ideas, but it has also voted for law-and-order candidates in the not-too-distant past, like in 1998 when Jerry Brown ran on a platform of bulking up OPD to make Oakland safer than Walnut Creek.

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to what residents want. Voters do seem to be of the opinion that increasing crime is a crisis. Are a majority of voters of the opinion that the city’s brief experiment with policing alternatives has gone too far and that redoubling support for a bigger and more aggressive police department is the best answer? Or do more voters feel that alternatives to policing hold transformative potential, and the city needs a mayor who believes in this mission? 

We’ll know more after Nov. 8.

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.