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Oakland City Hall

A City’s Journey to Smart Solutions (2): A Swinging Pendulum during a Public Safety Crisis

By Amy Mintz

When protests erupted in Oakland after leaked information on the planned expansion of the Domain Awareness Center (DAC) surveillance hub from the port to the entire city came out in 2013, the City Council vote swayed from an earlier unanimous vote to pass the DAC to a 5-4 vote to limit the scope of the DAC to just the port. This would not be the only time the pendulum swung within the City Council on issues pertaining to public safety in the city, after receiving federal funding for purposes specifically related to that.

In March 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion relief package out of which $190 million would be allocated for basic services, infrastructure maintenance and public safety for Oakland, a city with a $45 million deficit and just one month from layoffs at the time. A few months after this allotment of $190 million, the Oakland City Council voted to defund the police, approving budget amendments proposed by Councilmember Nikki Bas of District 2, who proclaimed that the amended budget would enable the city to reimagine public safety.

Her proposed budget cut over $17 million from the Oakland Police Department (OPD), diverting the funds to invest in a relatively new program, the Department of Violence Prevention (DVP) for “violence interrupters” and the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program for non-violent, non-emergency 911 calls. The goals of MACRO include reduction of the number of arrests and responses by police; and the DVP was established in 2017 to combat violence through community-led prevention, intervention and support for impacted families and communities. The DVP programs focus on response to gang-related violence and gender-based violence (GBV), as well as community healing and restoration; and these are carried out and led by local community organizations funded by the DVP, rather than the police.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf strongly opposed the budget amendment in a statement: “until we have proven alternatives, we cannot destroy Oakland’s current public safety system at a time when we are losing so many to gun violence.” The two votes by council members against the proposal were from Loren Taylor and Treva Reid, who represent the districts most affected by violent crime; and as pointed out by Barry Donelan, President of the Oakland Police Officers’ Association (OPOA), it sent the message that “we may support your programs but we do not want less public safety at a time of skyrocketing violent crime”. Donelan estimated that the diversion of funds that would close 50 police officer positions from the department and result in slower 911 response times.

The vote came at a time when crime was spiking with a 90% increase in murders, an 88% increase in carjackings and a 70% increase in shootings. It was less than one week after gunshots had broken out at a Juneteenth celebration at Lake Merritt (in Bas’ district 2), causing a crowd stampede of hundreds of people and resulting in one death and six shooting victims. When asked about the incident, Bas insisted that no amount of police could have prevented the shooting, and maintained her stance that the city needed to reimagine public safety. Just a few weeks later in early July, Guillermo Cespedes, Chief of the DVP, was in an interview with a TV news crew when an attempted armed robbery on the group was recorded just outside Oakland City Hall. The trend of rising violence did not cease in Oakland and the city continued on its trajectory in 2021 as the deadliest year with the highest homicide rate in 15 years, and a shocking rise in hate crimes and a 36% increase in gender-related murders and shootings.

By this time, the city had officially fallen well below its minimum requirement of 678 police officers. Mayor Schaaf, joined by the only two council members who had voted against defunding the police in June, called out the inadequate police staffing and changes in bail policy as part of the reason behind the rise of violent crimes in Oakland, “there is nothing progressive about unbridled gun violence...what Oaklanders want [is] a comprehensive and effective approach to safety that includes adequate police staffing”.

Amid growing outcry by community members and leaders about the rampant crime throughout all seven districts, the City Council backtracked on its earlier decision to defund the police in June, and voted to refund the police in December. Councilmember Bas, who had proposed the budget amendment to defund the police, also reversed her vote to refund the police just six months later.  

The 6-1-1 vote in December 2021 would fund two more police academies and add 60 police officers to work towards a return to the 737 authorized police officer positions. Was this too late? On December 31, 2021, the annual Ceremony of the Crosses was held at St. Columba Church to commemorate 134 victims of homicide that year—the highest since 2006. Oakland was losing an average of eight police officers per month, for reasons that OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong cited as a lack of city leadership, and a lack of appreciation.

The escalating violent crime and its particular impacts on one community within one district ended up resulting in surveillance now reaching all seven districts throughout Oakland— a city with the nation’s first privacy commission that was borne from efforts to block surveillance in the city. Next in this article series, a look at culture influences on the implementation of smart surveillance technologies shows how changing circumstances in public safety can tip the scales in balancing privacy and security.