Starting in January 2022, Alex, a Lake Merritt resident, became increasingly frustrated by a series of events near his home. People riding ATVs were routinely tearing through Pine Knoll Park, ripping up grass and scaring pedestrians. Alex, who asked us not to use his last name because he’s afraid some of the drivers may retaliate against him, worried that a kid playing in the park would get run over. Meanwhile, he was regularly being kept up late at night by the roar of vehicles.
In August of that year, Alex did what countless Oaklanders have done in similar circumstances: he wrote his city councilmember.
In the months that followed, Alex and a handful of neighbors pressed District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas’ office to take action. Bas’ staff met with the neighbors and discussed potential design fixes to address the vehicle disturbances, plus some other quality-of-life concerns. But it soon became clear to Alex that the city wasn’t going to be able to quickly solve the problems he and other residents were pointing to.
“We’ve just come to realize that nothing will be done by the city, because the city is very dysfunctional when it comes to crime and safety,” a frustrated Alex told The Oaklandside in late June. He’s aware that public safety programs received painful cuts in Oakland’s new budget, and that the city’s 911 dispatch system has been on the fritz.
“What we need in this city is a very strong police force,” Alex said.
Many residents feel a similar sense of helplessness related to the recent uptick in violent crime in Oakland. According to recent OPD data, violent crime overall is up 17% this year, and there’s been a dramatic spike in burglaries. It’s important to note that these numbers aren’t necessarily outliers; crime rises and falls over the years in cities across the county, and there isn’t a clear consensus around why that happens.
But the vagaries of trends in crime data don’t always feel immediately relevant or compelling to residents in Oakland, especially those living in proximity to the most visible or visceral impacts of our city’s public safety problems. Violence interrupters faced with budget cuts are trying to stop cycles of gun violence in East Oakland. In Fruitvale, merchants are on edge over a recent spate of shootings. North Oakland residents shaken by a surge of robberies in Rockridge and Temescal are dissatisfied with the city’s holistic public safety strategy. And advocates across the city have repeatedly urged City Council to fund traffic safety measures to spare Oaklanders further injuries and deaths in dangerous driving corridors.
They simply want their elected leaders to do something about the issues that have harmed them or are making them feel unsafe in their neighborhood’s streets, parks, or commercial corridors, and city councilmembers are often the first people residents turn to when asking for—or demanding—solutions.
So what can city councilmembers do about these problems?
It turns out that councilmembers don’t have the authority to do a lot of things constituents ask or beseech them to do on a regular basis. A councilmember can’t command the police in his or her district to patrol a certain area or solve a specific case. They can’t order a particular street to be paved, trees trimmed, or garbage on a specific street to get picked up.
In many ways, a city councilperson acts as a middleman between the residents of their district and the city’s administration and workforce who actually do the work of providing services. They can listen to their constituents’ concerns and ideas and try to catch the ear of someone at the Oakland Police Department, the planning department, and so on. And, of course, they are tasked with keeping their constituents’ wants and needs in mind when changing citywide laws and deciding how to spend the city’s money.
All of this takes time and effort, and success isn’t guaranteed. That’s often cold comfort to people like Alex, who continue to live, work, or spend time in proximity to crime and other issues that feel or are urgent and dangerous.
The Oakland City Council isn’t as powerful as you think
The Oakland City Council wields enormous power. It decides how to spend billions of dollars through the city budget every two years and it’s the final word on the city’s laws and policies. But the city charter—Oakland’s constitution—limits what these elected reps can do about crime, especially when it comes to responding to specific problems and doing so quickly.
Not everyone is aware that the City Council does not have the authority to arrest or charge individuals. Nor does the City Attorney’s Office. Only the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney have these powers, respectively. The City Council can’t fire or hire the police chief, either—that’s a power that belongs to the mayor and the police commission.
Councilmembers don’t have the authority to give orders to any of the city’s roughly 5,000 workers. According to Section 218 of the charter, only the City Administrator has the power to assign work to employees in Oakland’s different departments.
“The council cannot interfere in administrative matters,” City Council president Nikki Fortunato Bas said. “We cannot direct someone from Public Works to fill a pothole, or the police chief or any officer to do a specific thing.”
Councilmembers who violate this rule can be slapped with a misdemeanor and removed from office.
When councilmembers act in bold ways to help their constituents, they can end up being accused of violating city rules. In 2013, the City Council considered censuring Councilmember Desley Brooks for allegedly using her staff budget to hire people to work at teen rec centers—a violation of the city charter. The council ultimately voted not to censure her.
Brooks, who maintains she was following the advice of city staff, said the general public dramatically overestimates what their councilmembers are capable of when it comes to public safety.
“A lot of people have the perception that being a councilmember means you have an ‘S’ on your chest, and you can solve every problem,” Brooks told The Oaklandside. “That’s not the reality.”
The primary way the City Council can respond to problems raised by their constituents is through legislation. The council has the power to establish new laws and rules for Oakland, including public safety policies. For example, earlier this year, the council approved an ordinance imposing civil and criminal penalties on individuals who organize sideshows. When the council returns from its summer recess, it will discuss a proposed gun procurement law.
But criminal law is mostly a matter decided on by the state government. There’s not a lot the council can do, legislatively, to change the penalties for things like robbery and theft.
Could—or would—the City Council drastically increase the number of police officers in Oakland?
The council’s most powerful responsibility is amending and approving Oakland’s budget, which determines how much money goes to the police department and other public safety programs. Still, there are limits on what they can do with that money.
In June, the City Council approved the $4.2 billion budget for 2023-2025. But over half of the budget was tied up in restricted funds—money from bond measures and grants set aside for specific programs. The other half of the budget—the general fund—had a $360 million deficit that needed to be balanced, which meant cutting spending across departments.
The City Council agreed to give OPD $722 million and fund six police academies over the next two years. But it reduced the number of budgeted sworn police officers from 726 to 710 and slashed the overtime budget by 15%. To be clear, no police were laid off. The positions that were eliminated were vacancies.
The council also approved a budget for the Department of Violence Prevention, which addresses the root causes of violent crime in Oakland. DVP received some last-minute funds to prevent major cuts, but the department’s community-based contractors were put on the chopping block.
Many residents were unhappy about these decisions. Some wanted the city to pump more money into the police department, a demand that has popped up in social media threads and at community town halls.
“They need to double the number of police officers in Oakland,” said Alex, the Lakeshore resident.
Councilmembers who spoke with The Oaklandside said it’s impossible to double the size of the police force without making catastrophic cuts to virtually every other service in the city. Even paying for a modest increase in new officers is costly.
“If we want to reduce funding to rec centers, cut back library hours, and close senior centers, you could free up money for the police department, but then what kind of city would we be living in?” Councilmember Dan Kalb told The Oaklandside. “I don’t think there’s any appetite by the council or a significant portion of the public to have significant cuts to other departments to add even more money to the police department.”
Police are more expensive than many residents realize. According to Bas, the cost of training and fielding a police academy of roughly 20 new officers is about $9.5 million, which includes the ongoing operating expenses of salary and benefits.
A patrol officer costs around $280,000 per year with salary and benefits while investigators who respond to robberies and homicides cost upwards of $300,000 each, according to the most recent budget.
Kalb said that even if funding wasn’t an issue, the process of hiring and training a small cohort of officers takes about a year. The city constantly has to hire officers to just replace the ones who resign or leave for other reasons. Police departments across the country have complained that it’s increasingly difficult to attract new recruits.
The council has tried to use its legislative powers to improve efficiency around public safety issues. Councilmembers recently approved a study to evaluate OPD’s staffing around the city with the hope this will give the department clarity on where it should deploy officers. Councilmembers have also invested in the MACRO program, which is supposed to divert non-emergency 911 calls to civilian responders, who cost the city less to employ compared to police officers. To date, the pilot has struggled to receive even a fraction of dispatch calls.
Relationships can make a big difference
Current and former councilmembers said a big part of their job takes place outside City Hall: hearing and amplifying complaints about public safety.
Kevin Jenkins, who represents District 6, a swath of East Oakland that includes Eastmont, Merritt College, and the Coliseum area, said he talks with the police captain in his area several times a week to relay concerns he’s received from residents, which may range from car break-ins to homicides. Jenkins also invites the captain to community meetings so residents can hear directly from the person in charge of the strategy for addressing crime in their neighborhoods.
“We’re the biggest advocates our constituents have,” Jenkins said.
Councilmembers can also leverage their relationships with city staff to implement policy changes. When Loren Taylor represented District 6, OPD had two bureaus of field operation for handling 911 calls. Taylor noticed that the bureau covering much of East Oakland was handling many more calls for service than the other half of the city.
Taylor met several times with the police chief, the mayor, and community groups to discuss this disparity. It was agreed that East Oakland needed another police area—basically, more police beats with dedicated patrol officers. Taylor emphasized that accomplishing this structural change with OPD required having strong relationships with staff because he couldn’t make the department do anything.
Former Mayor and Councilmember Jean Quan echoed this sentiment.
“Councilmembers should have good relationships with area commanders so they can redirect forces when there is a problem,” she told The Oaklandside. “City Council can be good eyes and ears for the cops.”
Councilmembers also rely heavily on business associations for information about public safety trends in their districts. Daniel Swafford, who runs the Montclair Village Association and the Laurel District Association, said councilmembers can be effective at drawing OPD’s attention to things like patterns of break-ins, but they don’t always provide updates about whether a crime prevention strategy is working, which he finds frustrating.
Swafford said Oakland’s departments and employees have become increasingly inaccessible to average residents. Over time, this has created a culture where councilmembers effectively act as customer service between angry residents and the bureaucrats they’re trying to reach.
“You’re not getting someone picking up the phone or returning your phone call, so then what do you do?” Swafford said. “You go and scream at the person that came and knocked on your door and said, ‘I’m going to make this city better.’”
Swafford said some councilmembers have been effective as community organizers around public safety. Some helped to organize events like Feet on the Street and National Night Out to “activate” streets where crimes have occurred. He said they’ve also had some success helping constituents set up neighborhood watch groups. Swafford said it’s been a struggle to get residents to participate in these kinds of community groups, and he wishes people recognized they have a role to play in making Oakland safer.
“I have conversations all the time where people say things like, ‘damn city doesn’t care about the potholes.’ Well, have you reported it?” Swafford said. “The city doesn’t have a bunch of psychics downtown.”
What it does have is the OAK311 system, where anyone can report illegal dumping, graffiti, abandoned vehicles, and potholes. But with upwards of 37,000 reports so far just this year, and a limited city budget for the crews that do the work of fixing streets and cleaning up, it can take weeks or months before many problems are addressed.
Can the City Council make Oakland safer?
Given all these limitations and complexities, it’s often the case that councilmembers can’t find solutions that make residents feel safer.
Alex, one of the residents who contacted Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas about ATVs in his local park, shared an email thread that detailed months of interactions between him, other residents, and the council office.
In September 2022, Bas’s communications director, Debra Israel, and representatives from Public Works met with several residents to discuss problems in Pine Knoll Park. According to a summary of the meeting, the motorcycles were a big issue, but residents were also concerned about a bathroom that they claimed was a magnet for drug use. And residents complained about an area of the park near several homes where unhoused people had been seen lighting fires.
It’s worth noting that homelessness is frequently conflated with crime, which can lead to policies that criminalize unhoused people.
City staff explored potential solutions using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)—a strategy that involves making changes to the built environment to make spaces safer or deter certain activities.
Residents wanted to block vehicle access to the main park with boulders, decorative chairs, or bollards. But city staff noted in the meeting minutes that it would be impractical and expensive to barricade the entire park. Residents also complained about homeless residents dwelling near a cluster of trees on Lakeshore Drive. Staff agreed to file a 311 request to trim the trees, and the meeting minutes note that “one CPTED principle is Natural Surveillance” to discourage undesirable activity. Staff also said they’d see whether it was feasible to fulfill a resident’s request to install “thorny vegetation” in the park to discourage homeless camping. A city spokesperson told The Oaklandside that park employees didn’t consider this an appropriate course of action. Staff at the meeting also encouraged residents to start a neighborhood watch group.
In January, Alex complained that another group of motorcycles and ATVs had destroyed the landscape of the park. He added that Israel’s suggestion to contact OPD and the sideshow units hadn’t worked. He also said unhoused residents were still in the park and cooking over open fires near several buildings.
Israel said she would follow up with OPD and discuss how to engage with the organizers of the sideshows. She also asked Alex for the 311 report about the encampment so she could follow up with the city’s homelessness division. And she connected Alex with a facilities worker to discuss installing a fence to prevent people from going behind the park bathroom to use drugs.
Alex emailed Israel again several days later to say that a group of motorcyclists had driven over sidewalks near the park to blow through a red light on Lakeshore and Hanover. He said that after five months and close to 80 emails the city’s inability to stop this kind of activity was a disappointment.
“I’m all for constructive dialogue, but one that leads to some kind of outcome,” Alex wrote. “Since, there has been very little done, with no effect, to address these issues it is now clear that this dialogue isn’t moving anywhere.”
In May, another resident wrote in the same email thread, asking Israel and Bas’ chief of staff, Cinthya Muñoz Ramos, if there had been any progress in protecting the park from motorcyclists. Two weeks later, a different resident wrote in the same thread to complain about a large tent behind the park bathroom and people screaming at night. Israel responded that she would take the 311 request about the encampment to the homelessness team. She also said the residents could request support from MACRO and included information about the non-emergency referral program.
In subsequent emails, residents complained about the appearance of a BBQ grill set up near a tent. One resident claimed she had to evacuate her home in 2022 due to a fire that occurred in the park.
Bas’ response to the email thread in early June highlighted the challenges of responding to seemingly straightforward public safety concerns. She noted that the proposed fence behind the bathroom would cost approximately $20,000 and staff didn’t install it after some neighbors expressed reservations. Alex said he and other neighbors are still in conversation with the city about installing a fence or potentially relocating the bathroom.
Bas said the work order to trim the trees near the encampment had been delayed because Oakland’s tree services division was still dealing with storm damage citywide.
Bas also said the city couldn’t physically bar vehicles from the park without blocking people in wheelchairs, cyclists, and strollers. She added that it’s difficult for OPD to catch reckless motorcyclists who often don’t have license plates. Bas noted that OPD policies forbidding high-speed pursuits in response to non-violent crimes are meant to protect bystanders from getting hurt, and that groups of motorcyclists usually outnumber officers.
Bas also touted an ordinance that council was preparing to approve at the time that gave the city the power to fine and jail people who organize sideshows. But she said disrupting sideshows would take more than an enforcement-based approach, and that her office is prepared to work on messaging to reduce interest in these gatherings.
“We recognize that this is very frustrating and an abuse of our public spaces,” Bas said. “We acknowledge at this time that current strategies have not yet been effective, and we are committed to continuing to explore solutions.”
Bas told The Oaklandside there’s little the police can do about roving sideshows. She defended CPTED as a useful tool for reducing some criminal activity. As an example of its success, Bas cited street lighting, speed bumps, and a system of vehicle diverters along East 15th Street that she says helped reduce sex trafficking on this street. But she acknowledged these measures don’t solve the underlying problem of sex trafficking. Bas said many public safety issues in Oakland are complex and may require the participation of multiple stakeholders.
“We try our best to address things as short-term as possible, but sometimes these solutions are more medium and long-term, depending on the complexity of the issue,” Bas said.