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Dishonest ‘Defund’ Messaging is Not Making Oakland Any Safer

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If you believe the Oakland Police Department and their union, the city’s rise in crime is a result of a slashed law enforcement budget. They commonly point to “defund” efforts as the bogeyman that draws out and emboldens a criminal element lurking and waiting for an opportune moment when progressive agendas weaken the power of the police.

The problem with that narrative is that it’s not all that true.   

It has been said by many, in many different and far more prolific ways, that the most effective lies contain an element of truth. And the truth is Oakland has experienced a very violent year.

There have been 127 homicides in Oakland so far this year, including too many children and the recent death of Kevin Nishita, a news crew security guard and retired Colma police sergeant who was shot Wednesday during an attempted robbery on 14th Street. Nishita died in the hospital Saturday. 

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong held a press conference Tuesday where he began with two minutes and 7 seconds of silence for the 127 lives lost in 2021. Few dispute that the city is reeling from a very real wave of crime and tragic loss of life. That much is true.

What’s going on in Oakland is hardly happening in a vacuum. Other major cities are experiencing elevated crime levels, especially retail thefts that appear to be organized at a high level. The caravan smash-and-grab thefts have recently plagued San Francisco, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Concord, among other cities.    

Armstrong criticizes City Council’s push to reallocate funds toward violence prevention programs — a point reiterated and beaten into the headlines by the Oakland Police Officers’ Association. He and the POA claim the department has been defunded, that the budget has been cut, and that is not at all the reality. 

The only “cut” to the police budget happened in concert with other budget adjustments as a result of the pandemic, not social justice efforts. The 2021-2023 police budget was actually increased to $674 million from the prior two-year allocation of $665 million. The $18 million Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas and others proposed for the Violence Prevention Department and mental health crises civilian response program — to go into effect July 2022 — was shaved from the budget request made by Mayor Libby Schaaf, not from already allocated funds.   

As of Tuesday, the Police Department had 677 sworn officers on staff, which is one officer short of the Measure Z commitment. According to the POA, “defund” measures have contributed to the lack of officers — but officers are leaving on their own, often for other departments. Their positions have not been cut. City Administrator Ed Reiskin said in September that the rate officer attrition recently doubled, from about five to 10 per month.

City Council approved four academies as part of the two-year budget, but in September they approved the addition of a fifth, which is one academy shy of what Schaaf originally requested. They also started exploring the cost implications of adding another academy in 2022, which would bring the number of academies up to the full six the mayor requested. 

Still, in response to the violent weekend and officer shortage, Schaaf is calling on council members to reverse plans for the $18 million investment in order to fund additional officer training and hiring.

But as we’ve seen in years past, more police does not necessarily result in less crime or more crimes solved. What has helped in the past was the city’s Ceasefire program, which asserts that just about 400 people — .01 percent — are at the highest risk for engaging in violent crime. With a focus on that small group of people, and not over policing of average citizens, gun-related homicides were reduced by about 30 percent after its implementation in 2013. By 2018, the program was credited with cutting homicides down to 68, nearly half of what the city saw in 2012.

The chief said Tuesday that the Ceasefire program is still operational but he admits there have been cuts, which he said were due to the pandemic. However, the Ceasefire teams have been reduced under the last three police chiefs. Councilmember Sheng Thao, who is also running for mayor, said in an interview Monday that she wants the program prioritized again, saying it was “dismantled” by Reiskin without City Council approval or advice.  

There is no doubt Oakland is in need of help, but that will require honest conversation about what works and what doesn’t. Politicized POA messaging and dishonest “defund” blaming is not making the city any safer.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.