Mayor Schaaf said a supermajority of residents want more police, but reform advocates say the public is really on their side.

A police officer patrolling Lake Merritt in April. Credit: Amir Aziz

by Darwin BondGraham | The OAKLANDSIDE | May 13, 2021

During her budget presentation to the City Council on Tuesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf pointed to a city-commissioned survey showing that a majority of Oakland residents don’t want to cut police spending, as the reason why her budget “preserves core police services.”

“This is the mandate from Oaklanders, 78% of whom have told us they want at least the same or more police 911 response and patrols,” Schaaf told the City Council.

The survey of over 1,800 Oaklanders was conducted in December and January by an independent polling firm to gather information for the city’s budget development process.

Numerous Oakland residents called in during the council meeting, most of them to criticize Schaaf’s plan—it would increase police spending by roughly 8%, from $316 million this year to $340 million by the end of next fiscal year—and to ask that alternative violence prevention, mental health, and social welfare programs be funded instead of OPD.

Schaaf spurned these comments, saying it was her intention to listen “not to the loudest voices, but to the voices of the most impacted.” She pointed specifically to five Black members of the city’s 17-member Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, who asked the panel to adopt, as one of its guiding principles, the rule that “police reductions will only be made when a suitable alternative is in place that is proven to offer an equivalent or better impact on public safety.”

But some critics of the mayor’s budget say the survey she cited doesn’t accurately reflect resident attitudes about OPD or police spending. The Anti Police-Terror Project, a group that’s advocating for much of OPD’s budget to be directed to non-police services, took to Twitter yesterday to criticize Schaaf’s interpretation of survey data.

And requiring a proven alternative to be fully up and running before the police budget can be reduced, say advocates, presents a catch-22: alternatives can never be scaled up to a size needed for them to be effective due to the fact that current police spending (OPD consumes up to 45% of the city’s general funds) leaves very little for other programs.

“It’s disingenuous to look at that poll and work the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force has done and say Oaklanders want more police in their community,” said Sikander Iqbal, deputy director of the Urban Peace Movement, a group that works to reduce violence in Oakland’s communities of color.

The budget survey cited by Schaaf did find that 78% of Oakland residents want to maintain or increase police staffing levels for patrols and 911 response, but Iqbal pointed out that the same survey showed relatively low levels of support for maintaining police patrols in neighborhoods and police investigations when compared to other services like fire and medical response and fixing potholes. Iqbal added that the survey question was a narrow one: surveyors told respondents the city would need to make major budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic and then asked people whether or not they supported cutting police services, or paying more taxes to maintain or improve them.

“They’re not presenting an alternative,” he said. “You get a question that’s, ‘Do you want more, less, or the same police presence in the community?’ Most people are going to choose more or the same.”

Iqbal believes that when presented with alternatives to policing, more Oaklanders would agree that the police budget and staffing levels could be reduced to pay for non-police programs.

“The question framing is always the crux of any poll,” said Liz Suk, executive director of Oakland Rising, a progressive group that advocates for cutting the police budget and investing in alternatives.

In February, Suk’s group ran a poll by sending text messages to voters who live in Oakland’s flatlands neighborhoods presenting them with a choice between policing and alternatives. Of the 1,117 people that responded, 65% agreed that the police department’s budget should be reduced by half to pay for alternative safety and community development programs. The poll’s respondents were predominantly people of color living in the flatlands where crime rates are much higher.

“Libby Schaaf has, for the last seven years as mayor, used fear to continue to tell a story that the people want more policing when, in fact, the community is fearful of the police,” said Suk. “We’ve heard from the community, and her own survey shows that the priorities of the people of Oakland are investing in programs that address the root causes of poverty and violence, affordable and stable housing, and crime and violence prevention programs.”

Similarly, Iqbal’s organization surveyed 241 Black men who live in Oakland, also in February, many who have been impacted by the justice system and have experienced violence. Most said they feel unsafe in Oakland, and that gun violence, being robbed, and housing insecurity are their three top concerns. Asked about how the city could be made safer, the respondents said good paying jobs, affordable and stable housing, and other things that could address the “root causes” of violence. Overall, the respondents said they feel less safe around the police.

Both surveys were conducted to help inform the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force’s work, which resulted in a report that recommends the city heavily invest in alternatives to policing like the new MACRO program, which will send unarmed civilians to nonviolent 911 calls, as well as transferring things like traffic enforcement out of the police department.

Another survey conducted for the task force by the local reporting lab El Tímpano, was conducted via text message and sent to about 1,200 Spanish-speaking Oaklanders, many of them immigrants. Of the 53 who responded, most agreed that crime is caused by poverty, lack of job opportunities, and lack of youth programs. Very few said that “lack of policing” causes crime. 

However, when asked what would make their communities safer, more police was the top answer, indicating that many in Oakland’s Latinx communities would like to see more police patrols and better 911 response times.

Steve Heimoff and Jack Saunders recently founded the Coalition for a Better Oakland to support the Oakland Police Department “by being a counter-voice to the ‘Defund’ movement,” according to a press release. They believe Schaaf is correct in her view that most Oaklanders don’t want to cut the police budget.

“My hunch, and it’s only that, is that the advertised goal of cutting police in half seems so unlikely [to] the people represented by the 78% that they consider its actual implementation a highly improbable event,” Saunders wrote in an email to The Oaklandside. “They see it as all just woke talk.”

Saunders and Heimoff say they support non-police programs, like MACRO, because they can save Oakland money while freeing up police to focus on other problems.

“The cost of a large social worker force is much less than a similarly sized police force, not just on the wage side but also the very high insurance premiums and pension costs typical of police departments,” wrote Saunders.

But they feel that other proposals, like hiring civilian community ambassadors and violence interrupters in place of police, aren’t realistic and could pose a liability to the city.

Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability, a group that advocates for greater transparency and civilian oversight of the police, said she thinks people are asking the wrong question if they’re focused on whether the police should get more or less of the budget. Instead, she thinks Oaklanders should ask themselves what they’re getting for their money.

Over the past 20 years, Oakland has spent about $5 billion on its police department, consistently 42% of each year’s total discretionary outlay. Over this period, crime has remained a serious problem in the city and the department has been criticized for violating the civil rights of Black people and other groups.

Grinage said that the police aren’t underfunded, they’re inefficient and unfit for many of the jobs they’re currently doing. “Sworn officers are doing tasks which are certainly more appropriately done by non-sworn people outside of the department, so there’s a number of ways to redirect those funds,” she said.

She also thinks the city’s new MACRO program will be the test case to show that non-police alternatives can make the city safer. Schaaf’s budget proposal would fund MACRO with $2.6 million while seeking federal and state matching funds to possibly increase this.

But Schaaf’s budget proposal also reduces spending for departments like Human Services, which works on serving and housing the city’s homeless population, and Economic and Workforce Development, which handles major development projects and supports workforce training programs. The budget reductions are due partly to one time COVID-19 relief payments from the federal and state governments which aren’t available in future years.

Urban Peace Movement’s Iqbal said that Oakland has to scale up its departments that create housing affordability and security and economic opportunities in order to address the root causes of crime and violence.

“There’s not enough money to build alternatives and fund policing at $300 million plus,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to bring these programs to scale without investing in them. And the easiest way to do that is reduce waste in OPD.”

Grinage said she thinks it’s possible the same 78% of Oaklanders who want to maintain or improve police patrols and 911 response also would support this kind of massive shift in spending on programs that treat root causes, but she added that Oakland may not have the resources on its own to succeed.

“It isn’t a question of just stripping OPD of funds,” she said. “It’s a question of funding the other needs and that means looking for additional sources of income. It’s not just about cutting, it’s about increasing revenue from the county, the state, and the feds, and from private foundations.”

The Oakland City Council now has to weigh these questions and pass a budget before the end of June.