by  Mallory Moench, Rachel Swan | SF Chronicle | June 26, 2021

The mood felt tense as two dozen kids, ages 6 through 13, filed into Curt Flood Field to do stretches and bleacher runs Friday afternoon. Shortly before practice started, shots broke out and children had to run and duck behind the park restroom at the field.

At 4:30 p.m., a police helicopter circled overhead.

“As much as we don’t really like the police, we kind of need them,” said Aeeshah Diggs, whose son Mark is on the Oakland Dynamites and practices at Curt Flood Field every day. The gunfire is relentless, she said. Another shooting happened at the same location the previous week.

Diggs — like many Oakland residents — has complicated feelings about the police. She relies on them, but she is also wary of them. Her cousin Roger Allen was shot and killed by a Daly City officer in April following and an alleged struggle over a BB gun.

The past year in Oakland has been fraught for many residents. Homicides have spiked to more than 60 — about double the 33 by this time last year — as racial justice protests over police violence gave momentum to a yearslong debate across the Bay Area and the country about the most effective way to address violence and how to reimagine the police. While some residents want to slash the police budget and others want to boost their resources, those like Diggs are caught between the two sides.

At a contentious meeting Thursday night, the Oakland City Council passed a two-year budget that cut $18.4 million from Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed spending on police to fund violence prevention measures and social services. Schaaf would have increased funding for the Oakland Police Department, paying for two additional police recruit academies, bringing the total to six. The approved budget will freeze 50 vacant officer positions and shift the money elsewhere.

Oakland becomes the latest city to experiment with a new vision of public safety, one that shifts money from law enforcement to social programs with the aim of addressing the underlying causes of crime. Instead of more officers, the city will funnel resources to its Department of Violence Prevention, which partners with community organizations doing street outreach and intervention, and other social services.

Activists celebrated the decision, but the mayor and two council members representing the districts most impacted by violence opposed the move.

A day later, residents and community leaders were still debating what policing should look like in Oakland. Supporters of more police pointed to violent crime as the reason for adding more officers, while their opponents said police were failing to address that violence.

Just days earlier, a shooting at Lake Merritt killed one person and injured seven. Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said at a news conference after the shooting that it justified a greater police presence. But others noted that the large police presence at the lake on Juneteenth didn’t prevent the shooting.

Advocacy groups such as Anti Police-Terror Project have been campaigning for six years to slash the police department’s budget in half.

Liz Suk, the executive director of Oakland Rising, a coalition of nine nonprofits, has lived in East Oakland for more than 30 years and has been both a victim of and witness to violence. She said she has watched over the years as the city has invested more in police while disinvesting in the community, leading to worse street conditions, rising homelessness, insufficient services and little support for arts and culture.

The new budget will boost those neglected areas, she said.

“Crime is on the increase because we’re in a pandemic,” Suk said. She said jobs, affordable housing, recreation programs for children and mental health services are desperately needed. “We need a response from the city that is different than what it is now,” she added.

Some who supported the reduction in Schaaf’s proposed police funding were cautious about how new resources would be used. At King’s Boxing Gym on 35th Avenue in Oakland, co-owner Celeste King sat in her office Friday, listening to the steady thump of gloves punching Everlast bags. Increasingly, parents are bringing their children in to learn self-defense, she said.

King supports shifting money from police, but she wants the violence intervention organizations that benefit to be held accountable.

“We definitely need some defining somewhere,” King said, leaning back in a swivel chair, surrounded by family photographs, trophy cases and a poster of Muhammad Ali towering over a knocked-out Sonny Liston. “I just hope when it’s done it goes to the proper social services.”

Others have been adamant about keeping and even increasing police funding, warning about crime levels in the city. Oakland currently has 714 police officers — roughly 165 officers per 100,000 people while San Francisco has 202 officers per 100,000 people.

“Defunding your already shrinking, over-stretched police department, as Oakland suffers with rocketing violent crime, seems like an ill-thought-out policy decision that won’t end well for Oakland’s residents and police officers alike,” said Sgt. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, in a statement.

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said that over the past couple of days, local business owners, employees and residents collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition sent to the mayor and City Council to maintain police funding. Given attacks against Asian Americans this year, many people he knows want more police, he said.

“Many people truly feel unsafe already,” said Chan, who himself was attacked in April.

Chan said that earlier this year, when older Asian Americans were getting robbed after cashing checks, he asked police for more foot patrols near banks. He said police presence reduced the number of incidents after March, although he didn’t have exact data. An officer on the street can deter someone from committing a crime of opportunity, a similar effect to a home security camera, he said.

Chan urged the city to hire more officers instead of relying on costly overtime in its budget.

Suk, whose parents emigrated from Korea, said she understands the anxiety of the Asian American community.

“There definitely is an element of the community who believes that policing is the answer because it is an easy solution,” Suk said.

But she said doing so was not only contributing to a racist system of incarceration but was also ineffective, with attacks occurring in Chinatown despite a police station nearby. She instead promoted community ambassadors who walk the streets, escort older people and work with business owners on beautification and safety as a better solution.

Antoine Towers, chairman of the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition, said the investment in violence prevention was “long overdue.”

Towers, who lives in West Oakland, lost his nephew, brother and many other people he knew to gun violence. For the longest time, he said, shootings would happen on his block every other night. It was so bad that it was hard to advocate that it was safe for his 11-year-old daughter, whom he was trying to win custody of, to stay with him. Someone was killed outside his home near West Grand Avenue and Chestnut Street on Friday.

He said that police don’t prevent violence, but simply respond to it: “If they hear something is happening, they try to stop as much carnage as possible.” Police depend on violence interrupters whom the community trusts to address the root causes of crimes, he added.

That includes conflict mediation and community events to fill a void that violence might otherwise. Last week, Towers said he brought together a dozen community members at a barber shop in West Oakland to talk about what they want and need. If they said a gun, he pushed them to consider why; if they said money, he offered to help them find a way to earn it without resorting to crime.

Back at Curt Flood Field, the Dynamites’ coach, Jeff Cotton, said he is captivated by the idea of redistributing police funding. But like many others, he is concerned about which programs receive it.

Money for organizations that work with youths, providing an outlet and a place to go after school, could be very valuable, Cotton said.

“The adults are not the problem,” Cotton said. “These kids are taking out each other.”

But he also acknowledged the value of law enforcement.

He noted that when the regular season starts on Monday, the Dynamites will have a police officer at every practice.