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Oakland Moves $18.4 Million from Police to Social Programs

The city has approved a two-year budget that will cut millions from the police department budget and reallocate the money to fund violence prevention programs and other social services.

(TNS) — The Oakland, Calif., City Council passed a two-year budget Thursday that cuts $18.4 million from the police force to fund violence prevention measures and social services, a pivotal moment in the police-reform movement that followed last year's murder of George Floyd.

The $3.8 billion adopted budget was a counterproposal to Mayor Libby Schaaf's plan, which would have slightly increased police spending. The mayor sharply criticized the vote, saying it will lead to the loss of 50 police officer jobs and delay "response to Oaklanders in their time of crisis."

The vote comes as Oakland struggles with a spike in homicides, including a mass shooting at Lake Merritt last weekend.

The counterproposal, introduced by Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, was backed by Bas and council members Carroll Fife, Dan Kalb, Noel Gallo, Rebecca Kaplan and Sheng Thao.

"I'm really proud of what this budget has become," Bas said during the meeting Thursday. "We need alternatives to police responses to low-level nonviolent, non-criminal calls for service, and we need to invest in preventing violence long before it even becomes a possibility, by investing in our neighborhoods."

Council members Treva Reid and Loren Taylor, who represent neighborhoods on the east side of the city that have suffered from violence, dissented.

Critics of the effort to shift funding from the police force point to concerns about rising crime. As of Sunday, Oakland had seen 56 homicides, nearly double the number at the same time last year. All violent crimes — murders, assaults, robberies and rapes — were up 13 percent.

But advocates for deemphasizing police in public safety say traditional approaches haven't worked, and that police abuses by a department that remains under federal court oversight have harmed or killed people while fueling mistrust. They say it's past time to focus on the root causes of violence.

A clash over police funding is playing out in other Bay Area cities, as elected officials struggle with how to keep communities safe while investing in social services.

The cuts passed Thursday were still a fraction of the 50 percent Oakland's council said last summer it planned to chop from the Police Department's budget.

In May, Schaaf proposed a two-year budget that would have increased funding for the Oakland Police Department by spending $693 million total. The mayor's plan would have paid for two additional police recruit academies, bringing the total to six.

Schaaf's proposal would have set aside a slightly smaller share of the city's spending on police than in previous years. Though the share would have been slightly smaller, her budget would have increased police spending to account for overtime expenses.

Oakland far exceeded its budget when it spent $349 million on police in the 2019-20 fiscal year. The city budgeted $317 million for police the next year. Schaaf proposed spending $341 million on police in the 2021-22 fiscal year and $352 million in 2022-23.

Schaaf said Thursday the adopted plan "cuts much-needed future academies, which will significantly reduce police staffing" — now at 714 officers — and "force our officers to work even more overtime shifts, which are expensive and unsafe for officers and residents alike."

On Monday, Taylor, Thao and Reid proposed amendments to Bas' plan that included adding one police academy instead of the two suggested by the mayor.

Taylor said he and Reid voted against the budget because of the funding inequities with respect to central and deep East Oakland. Apart from the policing debate, he said, much of the budget skewed toward parks, workforce development initiatives and investment "west of High Street."

After the vote, Taylor said the alternate plan had "proposed the same amount in violence prevention (and) alternative community response," but would front-load police academies instead of spreading them out over two years, which he said would "have ensured a higher level of staffing sooner. It was the same cost, the same amount of officers trained. We just wanted them trained earlier."

In an email Tuesday, Schaaf urged constituents to support the three council members' plan.

Schaaf added that Bas' plan would "significantly cut the police budget, decimating 911 response and reducing officer staffing levels significantly."

Bas disagreed. In an email to constituents Wednesday, Bas said that "75 percent of those 911 calls are for low-level, non-criminal incidents" such as car tows, blocked driveways and mental health incidents.

The budget would also pay for affordable housing, improvements to parks and sanitation services to more than 100 homeless encampments.

More than 100 residents and community members called into the virtual meeting Thursday for public comment, and the majority expressed support for cuts to police spending.

Resident Bekkah Scharf urged council members to vote for Bas' proposal to reinvest funds from the Police Department into prevention measures that "actually keep us safe," she said. The recent mass shooting at Lake Merritt that left one dead and seven injured "demonstrated that no amount of police officers can prevent such incidents" even when officers were present, Scharf said.

Cathy Adams, president and CEO of Oakland's African American Chamber of Commerce, expressed support for Taylor's plan.

"Without the fifth police academy that Taylor has proposed, Oakland's police force will shrink faster than the alternatives can be ... in place to offload the work. This will lead to longer wait time for 911 responses."

The Anti Police-Terror Project, an advocacy group that has long called for defunding police and investing in communities, applauded the council's vote on Thursday.

"Today, (the) City Council gave much-needed hope to the organizers, mental health advocates ... faith leaders and working families across the city working to defund the police and invest in community," the group said.

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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