A group of people standing and sitting in a large room with pillars in the background. Several have their fists raised in the air. A man in the background is addressing an unseen audience.
Residents speak out against proposed cuts to the Department of Violence Prevention during an Oakland City Council meeting on May 30, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe

Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention is getting some bridge money to carry it through the summer, but the department’s community-based contractors, who do much of its work on the streets, fear the added funds won’t save them from the chopping block when the council finalizes the city’s next two-year budget before the end of June.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the department’s current contracts and grant agreements with community-based organizations from June 30 through September 30. If approved by City Council next week, the DVP will be able to spend $4.6 million through the summer on 29 nonprofits that do violence prevention and intervention work in Oakland. It would also maintain the funding for four groups that host Town Nights—violence prevention events that kick off this Friday. The temporary funding would come out of DVP’s budget once it’s finalized. 

But the department’s prospects could be less rosy after September. Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed budget for the next two years would reduce the department’s biennial budget to $41 million—about $6.6 million less than the 2021-2023 budget. Department of Violence Prevention Interim Chief Kentrell Killens wrote in a report to council that was presented in May that the department will have to reduce its contracts with dozens of nonprofit organizations by 22% and completely eliminate contracts with neighborhood and community teams, which do healing work with people affected by violence. In total, these reductions would save the city roughly $5.7 million.

Cuts of this magnitude would result in about 2,500 fewer people receiving violence prevention services from the DVP, most of whom will be Black and Latino, according to the report. 

The Department, which was founded in 2017, is tasked with preventing gun violence, supporting victims of violent crimes, and responding to gender-based violence in the community. Historically, most of DVP’s work has been done through nonprofit community organizations that deploy violence interrupters, life coaches, educators, and healers directly to neighborhoods.

City Councilmembers have repeatedly signaled their desire to find money for the department. Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas introduced budget amendments this week that free up $2.1 million for violence prevention, plus another $300,000 to address sex trafficking. She has also stressed that Oakland needs to develop a replacement ballot measure for Measure Z, also known as the Public Safety and Services Violence Prevention Act, which expires next year. Voters approved the special parcel tax and parking surcharge tax in 2014 to fund efforts to reduce homicides in Oakland. The tax is a major source of revenue for the Department of Violence Prevention—in the fiscal year 2021-2022, the city allocated $9.3 million in Measure Z funds to the department. (The police department also receives millions in funding from Measure Z.)

Council has until June 30 to finalize the 2023-2025 budget. Officials may find the revenue to maintain the department’s current level of funding for the next two years, either by making cuts to other city departments or by restoring funding next year when the mid-cycle budget amendment process begins, especially if the city takes in more revenue than it projected it would.

On Wednesday, the Oakland City Council convened to discuss proposed budget amendments. For a few hours, dozens of speakers from community-based organizations urged the council to not cut DVP funding. 

Some of the speakers who appeared on Tuesday and Wednesday came from organizations reliant on these grants. They said any cuts would have a direct impact on their work preventing violence in Fruitvale, East Oakland, and other violence-impacted neighborhoods. They also said the bridge funding is welcome but not a real solution.

“That’s just throwing a Band-Aid on a broken bone,” said Alex Toris, a cultural activist for Communities United For Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), which is one of the recipients of department grants. 

Toris said the proposed budget cuts could cost him his job, which involves responding to violent incidents and supporting people after the deaths of loved ones.

CURYJ, Youth ALIVE!, Trybe, and other nonprofits have held press conferences outside City Hall in recent weeks to protest potential cuts to the Department of Violence Prevention and other programs. They argue the mayor’s budget should divert funds from the police department to violence prevention. Under Thao’s proposal, OPD would receive a roughly $40 million increase in its budget, but this increase in spending doesn’t keep pace with increased costs and OPD will actually be forced to reduce services, including by cutting police overtime by 15%. City leaders say this could result in slower response times to 911 calls among other impacts.

“What we’re asking for is not for City Council to put the money where their mouth is, but to keep it there,” Joseph Griffin, executive director of Youth ALIVE! Said during a press conference on May 30. “That’s really what we need to keep our programs going.”  

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said she wants to ensure that the city is strengthening and preserving the Department of Violence Prevention’s programs. 

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran noted that a majority of the department’s nonprofit contractors are meeting or exceeding performance benchmarks, according to reports they submitted with the city.

“I want to assure you that every councilmember that has submitted any proposed amendments is in full support of restoring DVP grants,” Ramachandran said. “This is a unified goal.” 

Councilmembers Carroll Fife and Treva Reid quizzed the Department of Violence Prevention staff about how they’re monitoring their nonprofit contractors. Fife expressed concern about the potential lack of oversight of some of the smaller organizations doing work for bigger nonprofits. Without going into detail, Fife said she’s received complaints.

“It’s also important that we hold nonprofits accountable because we do as City Councilmembers hear from the community when they don’t see things happening, and they’re wondering where our tax dollars are going,” Fife said.

Reid said she’d like the department to be able to invest more in school safety programs. Reid recently hosted a town hall in her district where residents discussed concerns about sex trafficking and abductions—issues she referenced again during Tuesday’s meeting.

Despite the committee’s full-throated support for the Department of Violence Prevention, the department’s nonprofit contractors aren’t backing down until they see the final budget. Another press conference was scheduled Wednesday in front of City Hall, before a City Council budget hearing.  

Ricardo Garcia-Acosta, director of community peace at CURYJ, told The Oaklandside that all together, CURYJ is facing a 42% budget cut, which will likely require eliminating several positions.

Garcia-Acosta was particularly upset by the potential loss of funding for neighborhood and community teams, which integrate violence prevention strategies, including life coaching, Town Nights, and violence interruption. As an example, he said the team pays participants, including people who recently got out of jail, to clean parks and beautify public spaces. They get money for this work and connect with life coaches. 

“If that gets eliminated, all that will be left are standalone services,” Garcia-Acosta said. “No synergy, building, or integration of work.”

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.