(TNS) — Cities and public agencies throughout California's Bay Area are rushing to slash their police budgets, an idea that would have seemed radical only six weeks ago.
Early Wednesday morning, the Berkeley City Council approved a budget with $9.2 million in police cuts, much of it redirected to social programs. Oakland stripped $14.3 million from its police budget last week, but city officials vowed to go further in response to protests.
San Francisco city leaders — with backing from Police Chief Bill Scott — said weeks ago they are looking to move funding away from policing and into other city services.
Last month, the Oakland Unified School District board voted to purge officers from school campuses. And BART, the Bay Area’s sprawling transit agency, recently diverted $2 million from police and fare inspectors toward unarmed ambassadors. Its board also plans to shift some duties — including mental health calls — away from law enforcement this fall.
The future of policing is coming dramatically into focus, in a region that could become a laboratory for reform. Local governments have lots details to figure out, such as how to redirect the money to keep communities safe, while spending it on things that matter. Cities are laying out plans to audit their 911 call systems and review how police officers use overtime. The future excites some people but seems complex and precarious to others.
In the past couple weeks some Bay Area politicians began pushing harder for this new vision of public safety, following threats they might not be re-elected.
“We haven’t had this kind of reckoning” since 1963, said BART Board President Lateefah Simon, referring to the year that newspapers published front-page photos of police dogs attacking civil rights protesters — images that convulsed the nation.
Yet for many activists, the changes aren’t coming fast enough. Emotions are raw over the killing of George Floyd, the Black man who died in a roadway in Minneapolis after police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for longer than eight minutes. Protesters who chanted “Defund the police” after Floyd’s death are growing impatient as the message grinds through local governments.
Frustration over the slow pace of change boiled to the surface Tuesday night in Berkeley. Scores of people called into a City Council meeting that dragged on for six hours, as officials balanced the political demands of the moment against the urgency of an economic crisis.
The overwhelming majority of callers supported a last-minute proposal from Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, who wanted to to slice the police budget in half, though she didn’t present a plan for the funds. Many exhorted the council to delay passing a city budget until its July 14 meeting, when Davila’s proposal comes up for discussion.
At quarter to midnight, Mayor Jesse Arreguín sternly addressed his constituents.
“There have been a lot of comments saying, ‘Let’s delay the budget,’” he said. “Our fiscal year begins in 15 minutes, technically. We need an operating budget.”
Arreguín described the initial $9 million police cut as a “down payment” that opened the door for larger discussions, some of which may have to involve the police union, he said. Berkeley would freeze vacancies and shave overtime to extract the money, then spend it on new programs, such as an African American Holistic Resource Center. Already, council members had pitched strategies to rethink public safety. In addition to Davila’s item, Councilman Rigel Robinson had floated a measure to eliminate police from traffic stops.
The philosophy, while new, has at least one precedent: In 2013, county officials took over the police department in Camden, New Jersey, installing surveillance equipment — such as license plate readers — to do the work of officers. Camden saw a significant drop in violent crime, yet the overhaul remains controversial, in part because it broke up the police union.
Oakland civil rights attorney James Chanin told The Chronicle he can imagine plenty of scenarios in which police currently respond, but that don’t necessarily need to involve law enforcement — such as sending mental health professionals to defuse domestic disputes. Chanin represented plaintiffs in a famous 2000 police beating and corruption case that later placed Oakland under a federal court monitor.
“There are ways to trim the tree without chopping it down,” he said.
Many view the fervor to transform the police as a logical extension of Black Lives Matter, and activists are ramping up pressure to lacerate police budgets further, or disband departments altogether. At City Council meetings, callers threaten to vote out or run challengers against politicians who don’t meet their demands.
That’s led some observers to wonder if the swift, widespread embrace of these reforms in the Bay Area could be a political calculus.
“We’re in this heightened situation where people are falling all over themselves to prove they’re part of the program,” said Greg McConnell, CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, a group that represents major employers and building trades in Oakland.
McConnell, who is Black, empathizes with the protests. Yet he’s somewhat surprised by Oakland’s determination to erode law enforcement, when residents of Chinatown and some of the flatland neighborhoods are clamoring for protection.
Mayor Libby Schaaf took office five years ago on promises to boost the police force to 800 officers — a goal she nearly met last year, when the city funded 792 sworn positions.
As the politics heat up, officials are also struggling to keep a civil tone in discussions that dredge up the country’s long history of racial oppression. At least five people called the Oakland City Council’s public comment line Tuesday to unleash violent racial slurs. In Berkeley, a caller attacked Arreguín for not slicing more of the police budget, saying the mayor wasn’t “Latinx” enough. At a recent BART meeting, one board director praised Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Simon compared these outbursts to a person confronting all his demons in therapy. Racism “is in the nation’s bone marrow,” she said, and policing has become the space where many of those issues play out.
Cat Brooks, an outspoken activist in Oakland and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, said she’s optimistic about the current string of reforms. While federal leaders spar over law enforcement policy, California and the Bay Area are pushing forward, stretching to see what’s economically feasible and politically palatable.
Brooks cited a bill by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley to strike police from social service calls, and similar legislation by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, to classify racially motivated 911 calls as hate crimes. Additionally, Brooks’ group is sponsoring a bill by Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles that would delegate community organizations to respond to homelessness issues, domestic conflicts and mental health emergencies.
When Brooks helped create the Anti Police-Terror Project five years ago, with a platform that anticipated today’s “defund the police” campaigns, people dismissed her as an outlier.
“This movement was born out of Oakland from a grassroots organization that people used to look at as crazy fringe radical people,” she said. “And now it has national traction.”
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