When in the course of human events involving a sexual assault scandal spanning several police departments, a ragged band of activists issued a call to cut the funding of the Oakland police in half, we didn’t expect to achieve much besides notice. We thought we could start a conversation about the 50% of the general fund budget Oakland allocates to police, compared with 22% in Los Angeles and 25% in Detroit.
We mobilized people to come out to the budget forums held in each city council district after mayor libby schaaf released her proposed 2017-19 budget, which predictably calls for a 6% annual increase in spending on police. Activists were stunned to see a slide in the mayor’s presentation specifically addressing – and dismissing – our demand. We were also surprised to hear so many people at the forums echoing our demands, no matter what issue had brought them out (public banking is a big one, thanks to Friends of the Public Bank of Oakland, formed by members of Commonomics and Strike Debt a year ago).
People especially resonated with the call for an independent audit of the police to determine exactly what they do with their $250+ million every year. (If you’re shaking your head that a city that has just learned about a massive scandal among its cops has to be prodded to do an audit, you don’t know Oakland. The scandal was revealed by whistleblowers and local media, not by any internal accountability mechanisms, which they don’t really have – last year, voters approved the first police oversight board in the department’s history.)
Defund OPD researchers got piles of documents through a public records request which revealed that parking and mental health calls account for a majority of police activity in the city. So we have the highest paid and most heavily armed people in the city writing parking tickets, and people with 15 hours of mental health training (but lots of guns) responding to calls about people in distress. Though nearly 300 of the 800 police officers are classified as “part-time” in city budget documents, when asked what the definition of a part-time officer is, researchers were told that no such position exists.
OPD officers make up only 15% of the city’s workforce. OPD consumes 32% of base salaries, 46% of overtime pay, 54% of “other pay” (we don’t know either) and 35% of employee benefits. Only 8% of them live in Oakland. Not surprisingly, our payouts to settle lawsuits is one of the highest per capita in the country.
Three council members quickly joined our call for an audit, which will likely be approved.
Libby shrugged off the questions and complaints, plowing ahead with her plans for a new police academy and accepting a $1.8 million Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant from the federal government which requires a $10 million match from the city – that’s $5.55 for every dollar we get. Maybe next time around we can elect a mayor who understands basic arithmetic.
At city council meetings to discuss the budget, speaker after speaker railed against the proposed increase. Several impassioned African American women pointed out that giving more money to people who have been revealed to have broken the law is not a good way to get them to change. Defund OPD speakers well supplied with facts pointed out that numerous studies have found no correlation between more cops and lower rates of violent crime. (Including in Oakland, where schaaf herself said that after the recent scandal broke, OPD reduced use of force and stop and frisks in Oakland by about two-thirds, leading to a corresponding drop in complaints of police misconduct. The mayor said crime dropped in this time period.)
The core of the mayor’s presentations at the forums was a PowerPoint reviewing the results of a survey
in which Oakland residents were asked about their priorities for the new budget, as well as their feelings about living in Oakland and the services it provides. While 73% say living here is excellent or good, only 34% say the services are excellent or good, and not surprisingly, African Americans and people living in East Oakland feel worst about the city.
Housing costs and affordability were by far the top priority of the people surveyed, outplacing public safety by a two-to-one margin. Put together, housing costs and homelessness were the top or second priority of over 50% of respondents, while only 24% put crime and violence first or second. Nevertheless, the mayor’s budget has a much larger increase for police than for housing. She proposed adding $250,000 to the $7 million currently allocated for dealing with homeless in the city. Many speakers pointed to the plethora of encampments around the city, where city workers for a time refused even to collect garbage, and asked reasonably where the $7 million was going and how an extra $250,000 was going to help.
Dozens of attendees at the budget meetings filled out signs saying “Less cops, more ______” and took selfies of themselves holding them to post on social media. A few refused them because it’s grammatically incorrect.
The budget is supposed to be approved by July 1. Defund OPD is continuing to push for three immediate demands in addition to the audit: cancel the COPS grant match, reject the new police academy and cut police overtime by 50%. We are also joining a large coalition of community organizations called Refund Oakland to demand that a People’s Budget be adopted. Come out to support these reasonable demands:
City Council Budget Meeting
5:30pm-8:00pm (but will probably go much longer)
Oakland City Call