Two police cars double-parked on a street near a cyclist and several other vehicles. Construction looms in the background.
Oakland police vehicles near the intersection of Harrison and 24th Streets on July 12, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Earlier this week, the California Board of State and Community Corrections approved $267 million in awards for cities and counties across the state to address retail theft. But Oakland was not on this list because the city’s beleaguered Economic and Workforce Development Department missed the application deadline, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s unclear how much money Oakland left on the table, but other Bay Area cities received significant sums. The Alameda County District Attorney got $2 million. Fremont received $2.4 million, and Newark got $986,444.

Tracie Cone, a spokesperson for the Board of State and Community Corrections, said it was her understanding that Oakland missed the deadline because of technical issues. She added that there is some consolation for the city.

“The BSCC’s efforts benefit all communities, including those that don’t directly receive funds,” Cone said. “If one community gets resources, that creates positive ripple effects for safety for all Californians—at the local, county, and state levels.”

But many Oaklanders believe the city needs far more than ripple effects to address the current increase in robberies and burglaries.

Robberies are up 20% and Burglaries are up 35% so far this year compared to the 3-year rolling average, according to OPD. At the same time, the city is strapped for cash following a $360 million budget shortfall that forced the mayor and city council to approve major spending cuts across most departments. 

Oakland applies for and receives numerous law enforcement grants every year, but missing out on easy money during an ongoing budget crunch has raised questions about the city’s process for securing outside dollars.

What went wrong? A decentralized approach, understaffing, and other problems

City spokesperson Sean Maher said the Economic and Workforce Development Department identified the grant opportunity in early June and collaborated with OPD and community partners to create an application. The police and local organizations pulled together their materials, but EWD failed to submit the application on time.  

Maher said this was an unacceptable outcome, and that the city and EWD are reviewing the mistake to ensure it does not happen again. 

“For many years the city has had a decentralized approach to the grants process that sometimes produces challenges like this one,” Maher said. The mayor and city council recently decided to fund a new position, making it one person’s job to coordinate all of the various grants different city departments are seeking. This should help streamline Oakland’s grants process, said Maher. “The city administrator is working with the city’s hiring team to expedite the hire of that position now.”

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she’s expressed her concerns to City Administrator Jestin Johnson about missing the grant deadline. She noted that the administration should bring a report to the City Council in October on the status of hiring the grant writer. She also said Oakland’s lobbyist provides regular updates to the administration about grant opportunities. 

The Economic and Workforce Development Department is charged with making Oakland attractive to businesses to increase job opportunities and boost the city’s economy. 

Economic and Workforce Development is also one of the city’s most severely understaffed departments: according to a report from the city administrator earlier this year, EWD had a 36.3% vacancy rate. In other words, of the department’s 66 budgeted positions, 24 were empty. This is also higher than the city’s overall vacancy rate, which is almost 20%. It’s worth noting that Oakland has experienced a staff shortage for years, and this problem is shared by other cities throughout the Bay Area.

Maher did not immediately respond to a question about how many grant writers or managers EWD is missing.

Economic and Workforce Development is one of the departments that is supposed to be consolidated under a plan proposed by Mayor Sheng Thao. If the City Council approves of the merger, EWD will be folded into the Planning and Building Department. Very few details have been released about how this consolidation would happen or how it might affect EWD.  

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who opposed the merger during budget discussions, said the missed grant opportunity confirms her belief that the consolidation is a bad idea because the departments have very different priorities.  

“I think the (city’s) focus should be staffing every vacant position in EWD and making sure that there’s permanent leadership soon,” she told The Oaklandside.

Ramachandran also proposed hiring a grant writer specifically for OPD as part of the recently approved city budget. The council didn’t move ahead with this plan. Ramachandran said the city could still benefit from a grant writer who focuses on public safety issues.

Oakland has a pretty good record applying for and getting major law enforcement grants

Oakland has been the beneficiary of numerous law enforcement grants from the state and federal governments in years past. And notwithstanding the forfeited retail theft grant, the city is in line to get more money for other public safety programs.

Next week, the City Council is expected to approve a $502,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety to help OPD conduct DUI and other traffic enforcement activities. The Council is also likely to approve a $646,000 “Byrne” grant from the Department of Justice to help foster OPD-community relations and a $331,000 grant to help Oakland police reduce its backlog of untested DNA kits for various crimes. OPD has received that last grant almost every year for the past 17 years.

In May, Oakland received a $665,000 grant under the COPS program to pay for SWAT body armor, helicopter maintenance, and medical supplies. That same month, the city got three federal grants worth over $1.1 million to fund OPD technology systems, body cameras, medical kits, and vehicle maintenance. In March, the city accepted $695,000 from the DOJ to support the police department’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center, which investigates violent crimes involving firearms.

The city has also continued to find funding internally to pay for public safety improvements. Earlier this week, Mayor Sheng Thao and several councilmembers announced a $2.5 million investment to help fix the city’s struggling 911 system. The Department of Violence Prevention also recently found funds to stave off potentially disastrous cuts to some of its community-based contractors. 

During a public safety town hall last weekend, Thao cited two other examples of recent support she got from California: a $1.2 million loan for automated license plate readers, and six California Highway Patrol officers. She also dismissed the need for declaring a local state of emergency citing the deep ties between her office and regional and state agencies.

Thao said she’s developed collaborative relationships with other levels of government to get more resources. “And this is going to be fast, quick, funding directly to Oakland.”  

Still, the missed grant opportunity is upsetting for many Oakland residents and business owners.

Thao’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story, but in an interview with NBC Bay Area, the mayor noted that the city administrator manages departments and she suggested that Johnson, who was hired in May, will have more answers about what went wrong and how the oversight will be fixed. 

She also acknowledged the widespread frustration with the mistake. 

“There’s definitely going to be some changes made to ensure this doesn’t ever happen again,” Thao said.  

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,, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.