Pressure has been building on the Oakland City Council to do something about crime, especially robberies and burglaries which have increased significantly in number this year. Last night, the council approved a slew of plans to respond to violence and theft, but nothing that will materialize overnight.
The council voted in favor of a plan drafted by District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb that included amendments from his colleagues. Kalb, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Carroll Fife, Rebecca Kaplan, and Treva Reid voted yes. Councilmembers Janani Ramachandran, Noel Gallo, and Kevin Jenkins were excused from the vote, which happened after midnight.
The plan mostly consists of requests for reports from the city administrator for the council to review in the next few months. These include options for how to increase recruitment and retention of 911 dispatchers. The administrator will also come up with recommendations for a grant program to help local business groups purchase security cameras. The council also moved to expand the number of police officers on the walking beat and to make those positions permanent, and asked the administration to find ways to increase the number of calls being referred to MACRO.
The reports will be due to the council by December.
“I don’t need to tell everybody we have a serious challenge in terms of the increase of crime,” Kalb said.
According to recent police data, violent crime in Oakland is up 31% compared to last year. Burglaries have increased 43%, and car thefts have spiked by 52%.
In recent weeks, the mayor and several councilmembers found $2.5 million to help fix the beleaguered 911 system and avoided almost all cuts to the Department of Violence Prevention. The City Council is especially keen to find quick, effective solutions following a revelation that the Economic and Workforce Development Department missed out on a state grant to combat retail theft, which outraged residents and community groups like the Oakland NAACP.
The council also authorized a lateral police academy for the 2023-2025 budget cycle. A lateral academy refers to the recruitment and training of OPD officers who have already become law enforcement officers through another city or county’s training program.
Ramachandran was skeptical of the idea, noting that lateral academies haven’t been very successful for OPD and they risk attracting officers with checkered backgrounds. The council asked the administrator to explore possible safeguards to prevent officers in trouble in one city from leaving and coming to Oakland through a lateral.
Fife asked the administrator to run a cost benefit analysis that compares having a permanent walking police beat with a similar plan for community ambassadors.
Jenkins and Reid asked the administrator and OPD’s Inspector General to provide recommendations by February 2024 to create a “real time crime center” that will use various technologies to help police respond more quickly to crimes. Kalb agreed but was skeptical of this plan, likening it to the Domain Awareness Center—a planned city-wide surveillance hub that was abandoned in 2014 after residents objected over privacy and racial profiling concerns.
The council also directed the administrator to come up with ways to pay for these ideas and to report back on a quarterly basis about all the ideas in the public safety package.
“As we call the vote on this item, it’s a reminder to our constituents that we are listening, we are acting, we are staying focused on community safety, and it’s a holistic approach,” Bas said.
Mixed reactions to the council’s strategies
There was a polarized reaction to the council’s strategy from the residents who packed the council chambers on Tuesday. Several carried signs demanding solutions to crime. There was at least one sign that protested the mayor getting a salary increase—an issue that was addressed at length in a previous council meeting.
Numerous speakers thanked the council for restoring funding to the Department of Violence Prevention’s employment programs, which were originally headed for the chopping block due to budget cuts.
“There’s a place for police,” said Andrew Park, executive director at the nonprofit Trybe, which is a DVP grant recipient. “But now is more of a time where we need programs for the people, especially.”
Other residents demanded that the council provide data that demonstrates the DVP is reducing crime. DVP staff noted that all of the grantees are routinely evaluated, and that the department is currently under contract with an outside firm to assess all the services it’s currently funding.
Others took issue with Kalb’s resolution, noting that it just asks for reports back from the administrator.
“We don’t support the Oakland Police Department sufficiently,” said Tim Gardner, a board member of the nonprofit Neighbors Together Oakland. “We obstruct them with poor policy, and that puts our resources to waste.”
Residents—supportive or not of the council’s direction—shared stories about experiencing crime in Oakland. Oscar Hernandez Gomez, a District 2 resident, said three men robbed him at gunpoint outside his house earlier this year, and that they threatened to shoot him and his dog.
“What happened to me and so many others in Oakland is inexcusable,” Gomez said, adding that finger-pointing among leaders isn’t helping. “I ask this body and our Oakland government for visionary leadership that takes our concerns seriously and brings safety to our communities now.”
Councilmember Reid stressed the need for a regional interagency task force to address a public safety crisis that she says touches Oakland and surrounding cities. She also said CHP and Caltrans are supposed to deploy 145 surveillance cameras in Alameda County, and she’s waiting to hear where they’ll be set up in Oakland. Reid noted that it will cost approximately $14 million to hire 10 additional police communication dispatchers and discussed hiring a potentially cheaper type of police communication operator.
Jenkins, who left before the vote on Kalb’s resolution, recently introduced a public safety plan that calls for greater collaboration between regional law enforcement agencies, including sharing data and technologies. He also said every city in the Bay Area should have departments of violence prevention. Jenkins’ plan also notes that he’s been in talks with other members of council about going to the state for solutions to reduce the number of shootings on highways.
Jenkins has promised to secure approval for more automated license plate readers. Oakland received a loan from the state to install and purchase more of these surveillance cameras, but OPD hasn’t been using its existing system for months.
Jenkins also wants to review and potentially modify OPD’s “no chase” policy to make it easier for police to pursue suspects. The department currently limits high-speed vehicle chases to people suspected of committing a violent crime. Police chases have killed innocent bystanders in Oakland.
OPD’s leaders say it’s hard to quickly staff up the department
Interim Police Chief Darren Allison shed some light during the meeting on Oakland’s limitations when it comes to reducing crime. He said lateral police academies have “not been wildly successful” in the recent past. During the department’s last recruitment in 2019-2020, Allison said OPD received 22 applicants and none of them were accepted.
Allison said that the department currently has 714 sworn officers and is budgeted for 712. OPD is losing on average several officers officers each month. But Allison said even with that rate of attrition, the next academy scheduled to graduate in December will put the department’s manpower at 725.
The department currently has three FBI agents working with its cold case team, and they’ve helped clear 8 cases this year. The city also has seven California Highway Patrol officers. Allison said he can ask about getting more outside help but added that other jurisdictions are also dealing with increased crime and personnel shortages.
The Ceasefire program, which the mayor is currently auditing, has been an effective tool at reducing gun-related violence in Oakland, said Allison.
Oaklanders can expect more information about a couple important public safety issues in the next few weeks. The council is supposed to receive a report about the progress in hiring a grant coordinator who will work across city departments. The administrator is also expected to release Oakland’s response to an Alameda County grand jury report on the city’s struggling 911 system.