In a place that for the past decade has been dedicated to rethinking how it polices its people, the argument for a smaller force and larger social service agencies has gained momentum since George Floyd's police killing in Minneapolis in May. Floyd's face and words — "I can't breathe" — almost instantly became part of Oakland's much-muraled streetscape.
The nearly immediate calls for cuts of up to half of the police department's $300 million budget were popular among protesters. But cutting a municipal police force in a large city has proved highly complex at a time when the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has greatly reduced the amount of public money to go around and crime has spiked.
Oakland has seen a surge in shootings and homicides, which in the second quarter of this year had more than doubled from the previous one. Violence and vandalism that have come with some of the street protests have rattled a business community that supports, in principle, a more preventive approach to addressing crime.
And while the city council at first approved a $14 million reduction to the police budget — a trim of about 5 percent — it balked at further cuts. Five of the nine council seats are on the November ballot, and many of those races are turning on the issue of police funding.
“Ideology and practicality are on a collision course, and that is true of many municipalities around the country,” said Rashidah Grinage, coordinator of the Coalition for Police Accountability here. “Unlike the federal government, we can’t print money, and right now, it’s very hard to make the numbers work.”
Rising violence and crimes committed under the name of police reform are shaping the debate nationally. And it is a politically fraught issue, with some urban communities not wanting to lose police protection and some GOP leaders seeking to punish liberal cities that attempt to cut law enforcement, such as in Texas, where state legislators are threatening to freeze property taxes in Austin as a defund movement is afoot.
In Minneapolis, the epicenter of the crisis in policing after Floyd’s killing, a veto-proof majority of the city council announced they would move to dismantle the police department. Members argued that past reform efforts had done nothing to fix an agency long accused of racism and the use of excessive force.
“We are going to create a fear-free future, where every life is truly protected and respected,” Alondra Cano, a South Minneapolis council member, said at a June rally near the site of Floyd’s killing, where the lawmakers announced they would “get rid” of the department.
The council voted soon after to pursue a ballot initiative that would ask voters in November to replace the police department with a new public safety agency.
The tentatively named Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention would pursue a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to public safety in the city, according to the measure’s authors. There are few specifics on how that goal would be achieved.
Since then, the city has struggled to confront the unrest following Floyd’s killing, which left a wide swath of the city burned and destroyed. More than 400 people have been shot since the beginning of the year, the highest number in five years, many of them in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s killing.
The sense of lawlessness has stalled the ballot measure process. In August, the Minneapolis Charter Commission, a court-appointed board, voted to delay for 90 days consideration of the council’s proposed initiative, effectively tabling the debate until 2021.
Lisa Bender, the council president, said the commission’s delay was “disappointing and creates barriers to change, but it will not stop our work to reimagine public safety in Minneapolis.”
In July, the council cut $1.1 million from the police department’s $193 million budget. Last month, Mayor Jacob Frey unveiled a proposed 2021 budget cutting the department by an additional $12 million — including reducing the size of the force by about 100 officers.
Some activists, including residents of the city’s predominantly Black north side, have accused the council of ignoring community sentiment at a time when police have been noticeably less visible and slow to respond to calls.
“They’re playing with people’s lives,” Jamar B. Nelson, a longtime anti-violence activist who was caught up in a mass shooting in the city’s Uptown neighborhood in June, said of the council. “These criminals feel like they can do anything, shoot people in broad daylight, because they aren’t scared of the police stopping them.”
Cuts across the region
Since Floyd’s killing and the ensuing national demonstrations, a number of city councils have moved forward with cuts to their police budgets. The Los Angeles City Council reduced its police department’s budget, which totals $1.8 billion annually, by $150 million.
Berkeley, Oakland’s neighbor, has established a goal of cutting its police budget in half, though the process has no timeline. In Seattle, Chief Carmen Best resigned when the city council there moved ahead with $4 million in department cuts and a goal of a 50 percent reduction.
After passing one of the strictest use-of-force policies in the nation last year, California lawmakers passed only a small fraction of the more than two dozen proposed police-reform measures that were submitted during the session that ended Aug. 31.
The legislature approved a bill requiring the state attorney general or another state prosecutor to investigate every fatal police shooting, a proposal opposed in the past by the attorney general, who already has the power to investigate the most egregious cases. State lawmakers also voted to ban the use of chokeholds.
But more far-reaching measures failed, evidence of the enduring power of police unions in this otherwise liberal state. Those included bills that would have required officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force, allowed the state to strip violent officers of their badges, and held officers financially liable for misconduct.
“The issues that concern us most are the ones that seek to criminalize police behavior,” said Eric Nuñez, head of the California Police Chiefs Association and the chief in Los Alamitos.
Oakland’s push to overhaul its police department predates the Black Lives Matter movement. The debate in this majority-minority city of 430,000 illustrates how difficult it is to restructure even a historically troubled department.
In 2003, a civil rights lawsuit filed against the department was settled in federal court, leading to federal oversight that remains in place today.
The case involved a clique of rogue veteran officers, known as the Oakland Riders, who planted evidence, falsely imprisoned suspects and beat civilians. The settlement included an $11 million payout to 119 plaintiffs. The officers were fired and, with the exception of one who reportedly fled to Mexico, were later acquitted of criminal charges.
But the real push for change — and for a much smaller department — came in 2009 with the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black 22-year-old, at the Fruitvale neighborhood’s transit station. Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle shot Grant, an aspiring barber, in the back on New Year’s Day. The crime was captured on video and set off days of protest. After his involuntary manslaughter conviction in 2010, Mehserle apologized to Grant’s parents.
“When I think of that moment,” said Cat Brooks, who founded the Anti Police-Terror Project about six years ago to lobby for defunding, “we did a very good job at impacting the public debate — utilizing social media, utilizing new tools — to really paint a visual picture of the lived experience of Black people in this country at the hands of law enforcement.”
On Monday, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced that her office would reopen the Grant case after his family repeated a years-long call for other officers to be held accountable for his killing, which still feels raw here more than a decade later.
The momentum of the movement has ebbed and flowed since 2009. But four years ago, Oakland voters took a big step toward creating greater accountability over the city’s nearly 800-officer police force by approving a citizens oversight commission with the power to fire and discipline officers. In February, the commission fired Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, at least in part for failing to get the department off federal monitoring.
A measure on the city’s November ballot is a follow-up to the one creating the commission. It would add an inspector general and guarantee legal support for the commission as it grows into a more independent body. On the same ballot, five of the city’s eight council seats will be contested, campaigns that in some districts are turning on the police-funding issue.
Brooks, who refers to herself as an “abolitionist,” said “we have to start living up to our brand as the most progressive city in America.” But she acknowledged that she is uncertain how, without armed police, the most serious crimes would be addressed.
“Even as an abolitionist, I can say in this moment, and I get in trouble over this with my abolitionist friends, I don’t know how to deal with pedophiles or rapists or real killers. That’s not my bailiwick,” said Brooks, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor two years ago. “If we disentangle police from being the answer to every single social ill, which they currently are, then they actually are freer to go deal with the things that scare us the most.”
Council pushes pause
The frustration among advocates for a much smaller force — and a much larger social services network designed to prevent crime — stems in part from the council’s decision last month to refrain from any cuts beyond the $14.6 million reduction approved when the summer began. That money will be distributed to city agencies involved in housing, education and other social services.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D), who once supported deep cuts in principle, called an additional $11.4 million in reductions “irresponsible” before the vote. At the time, opponents painted her home with graffiti, some of it reading: “You have blood on your hands.”
“This city is a place of radical social justice, a very active activist community, and so these concepts are not new to us,” Schaaf said. “Our context also is that we are a city that has struggled financially, that has the lowest officer-per-violent-crime staffing in America. This was a sizable cut, particularly for a department that struggles with staffing and is committed to reform, which also has costs to it.”
The council did begin a process toward a 50 percent reduction in the police budget. In late July, it approved the creation of a task force due to report in March on ways to achieve that goal.
The department also is beginning to collect and analyze 911 call data to better understand which of the 2,000 daily calls might require an armed response and which could be handled by social workers or mental health experts.
Interim police chief Susan Manheimer, who came out of retirement as the San Mateo chief to serve here, said the staging of any reform is key to its success. She said that the police are the default emergency call regardless of the problem and that, when called, the police go.
“Until a robust response mechanism that is trauma-informed stands up, we don’t want to say no to a person in trouble who we’re hard-wired to help,” she said, noting that she believes in aligning the department with the type of policing the community wants. “We recognize that if you’re struggling and battling with your community, that’s not community policing. And that’s not really got the legitimacy and the partnerships that we’re looking for.”
Business community battered
Many of the stores along Broadway in downtown Oakland are boarded up, protection against anti-police demonstrations that included elements of vandalism and theft, first in May and again as recently as July 25, when many marched in solidarity with protesters in Portland, Ore.
The boards have been covered in murals, a central feature of Oakland’s vibrant street life. Slogans and names of Black citizens killed by police — Oscar, Breonna, Stephon — swirl in colors. So do commands to “Defund OPD.” The most recent march ended with the glass doors of the police headquarters along Broadway shattered.
Those demonstrations, even if mostly populated by peaceful protesters, have frightened a business community that has supported a new way of policing in principle. In Chinatown, just off Broadway, many stores were vandalized and robbed during the marches, including pharmacies where a large percentage of the community’s elderly residents get medicine.
Carl Chan, head of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said the history of discrimination against residents of Chinese descent has made the community sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement and its call for changes in the police force.
But the crime that has accompanied the marches has given his 300-plus business members pause over the contention that fewer police might improve public safety.
“Unfortunately, crimes are spiking, and this is the time when we are saying, ‘Let’s have less police on the street,’ ” Chan said. “If the leadership can prove it is working, okay, at least tell us which city and which departments have been successful. But we don’t want to be guinea pigs again, and we are saying we do not wish the situation to get worse than before.”
Victory for long game
Despite the rise in crime, the political environment has changed over the course of the year in tangible ways.
The Oakland Unified School District Board voted early this year against dissolving its police force, the goal of a nine-year effort to get armed officers out of the education system, prompted by the 2011 shooting of 20-year-old Raheim Brown by a school officer.
Then came the Floyd killing, and in June, the board voted unanimously to shift the roughly $2 million annual cost of the force to other programs. Jackie Byers, executive director of the Black Organizing Project, which led the effort, said years of groundwork allowed the group to take advantage of the shifting political conditions this year.
Part of that campaign was mapping out how many encounters a poor child in Oakland has each day with law enforcement — from the patrols on the street to the transit police on the train to the armed officers in school hallways.
“The heart of this debate is an ideological battle around what people feel creates safety and facing the contradictions around a broken system that was the only one we knew,” Byers said. “This took a while, and we knew it would. But we didn’t just want to win a policy. We wanted to have an ideological kind of struggle.”
Challenge, then and now
Oakland’s history with police defunding began in Fruitvale, a council district that has the highest crime and coronavirus infection rates in the city.
Virus testing sites in parking lots and corner clinics, advertised in Spanish and English, surround the BART station where Grant was killed. In Alameda County, where Oakland is the largest city, there were more than 21,800 cases of coronavirus infection as of Wednesday. Just over 60 percent of those who have contracted the virus are Latino.
“Every day is an emergency here,” said Noel Gallo, who is seeking his third term representing the district in November.
Gallo is 65. He grew up in the Fruitvale neighborhood. His mother crossed the border without documents from Chihuahua, Mexico, eventually receiving her citizenship. He never knew his father.
Two brothers and a sister are in prison for crimes they committed as part of the neighborhood’s still-thriving gang life. He was involved, too, encouraged by a stepfather with strong gang ties. He moved into a safer household as a teenager.
“This election is being driven now by what the young people call defunding the police,” said Gallo, who has voted against all cuts to the department. “But the reality is that it’s not the police killing us. We’re killing each other.”
Among his constituents is Deanna Riley, 48 and the de facto mayor of a homeless camp near the Oakland marina. On May 9, her 25-year-old son, Kendrick, was shot 13 times in a nearby motel. He died there, his tent now a small shrine with crosses made of roses, hand-drawn RIP signs and a clutch of burning sage.
“It’s getting so much worse right now,” Riley said. “We don’t let anyone in here; we protect each other. If you get caught here stealing or shooting dope, you are out.”
But Riley said more police would do no good.
“They don’t do their jobs,” she said. “We have to take care of ourselves.”
Gallo’s chief rival is Richard Santos Raya, a 27-year-old attorney who teaches high school students about the law at the Centro Legal de la Raza in the plaza in front of the BART station. He filed his candidate papers in direct response to Gallo and the council’s wavering on cuts to the police department.
In May, the street in front of the house he shared with a roommate was the scene of a gunfight between people in two cars. It was midday, and two bullets ripped through the front room of the house, prompting Raya to, in his words, “hit the ground like a rat.”
The police arrived 40 minutes later. Raya said no one has been arrested.
“If our public libraries or art programs had the low deliverables the police department gives us every year, their budgets would be chopped,” he said.
Bailey reported from Minneapolis.