Voting to solve Oakland's crime problem

Oakland has the reputation of having a crime problem. There’s an ongoing debate in the city over what’s at the root of that crime problem. So what leads to that perception? Is it Oakland’s comparatively small, overworked police force? Is it a lack of economic opportunities and outlets for kids who grow up in tough neighborhoods? Is it a rocky relationship between police and the community they serve? Or something else?

Six years ago, voters approved a parcel tax called Measure Y that appealed to people on all sides of the issue. Since then, the measure has provided $19 million to increase the police force and build up violence prevention programs. But now city leaders are saying the measure needs a fix.

KALW’s Rina Palta reports.

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RINA PALTA: Oakland voters thought they were getting a good deal when they passed Measure Y in 2004. For $88 a year, their police force would go up to a minimum of 739 officers. The city would start several violence prevention programs to help kids who get in trouble. And each neighborhood would get what’s called a “problem-solving officer”: one who’d walk a beat, know everybody, and respond to very localized concerns. Measure Y was billed as a great way to beef up public safety, at a pretty low cost. Then, this summer, the whole thing fell apart.

CNN: We go on the same motto, where people say we’ll be doing less with less. We're not going to able to do that anymore. We're going to be doing less with less.…There’s no agreement, the officers will be laid off today.

In July, after union negotiations fell through, the city laid off eighty police officers. That brought the total number of police down to 695. And it also killed Measure Y. As part of the parcel tax, the city was required to maintain a minimum staff of 739 officers, so when it went below that number, the city had to stop collecting the tax.

JANE BRUNNER: I still think there’s a lot of people in the city who do not know exactly how that happened. And why we ended up having to cut police.

City Council President Jane Brunner knows how it happened. She says the city simply ran out of money.

BRUNNER: Sales tax has gone down because people aren’t buying as much. Properties were reassessed, so we don’t get the kind of property taxes. And we got a lot of money in the city of Oakland from transfer taxes. And people aren’t buying homes so we aren’t getting transfer taxes. So we have lost, we have ninety million dollars less in the general fund than we did three or four years ago.

This summer, Brunner says, it came down to two things. Either the city could close all the libraries, all the senior centers, and basically shutter city hall, or it could cut ten percent of its police force.

              BRUNNER: There was nothing else we could do

Now, Brunner and her colleagues on the City Council have decided to go back to the voters to try to get Measure Y back on track. So they wrote Measure BB, which would eliminate the minimum staffing requirements and allow the city to continue to collect the parcel tax. Here’s Brunner’s pitch.

BRUNNER: I think Oakland needs officers. And we can’t afford when police and fire is seventy-five percent of your budget, we can’t afford to get rid of everything else in the city. We’re in different economic times. If Measure BB, which is the measure we’re talking about, it was Y but now it’s on the ballot as BB. If it does not pass, we will lay off at least another 100 police officers come January.

Marleen Sacks, an attorney and Oakland resident, calls statements like that one scare tactics.

MARLENE SACKS: The city uses the term “Measure Y fix.” I prefer the term “Measure Y castration.” It’s a way of basically neutering Measure Y and taking out any of its accountability provisions.

Sacks has sued the City of Oakland twice, saying there’s been a pattern of mismanagement and misuse of tax funds collected through Measure Y.  She partially won one of the suits, which said the city had been misspending money designated for community police officers on general training and recruitment. As for Measure BB, Sacks says it doesn’t get to the core of the issue: that the city hasn’t been able to manage its money effectively.

SACKS: The city’s budget problems are so bad that even if these measures were to pass it wouldn’t prevent or necessarily prevent additional layoffs. And it wouldn’t solve the city’s budget crisis. Because the city has these tremendous pension obligations that they simply can’t afford.

Police in Oakland are the only city employees who don’t pay anything into their pensions. Other city employees pay 9 percent.

SACKS: So what we would actually be voting to support is salaries and pension plans that the city really cannot afford. It’s just a way for the city to get our money without having to provide anything in return. And I don’t think that’s fair to the voters. And I don’t think it’s fair to the city, which desperately needs these officers.

The Oakland Tribune’s editorial board has taken a similar stance, saying, quote, “taxpayers have paid more than $100 million for the so-called public safety tax, yet the size of the police force has dropped nearly ten percent.” But Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont, the executive director of the non-profit Oakland Rising, says people need to put things in perspective. Measure Y has funneled about eight million dollars a year into violence prevention programs. And, she says, it’s been a rare and progressive experiment that Oakland can’t afford to lose.

ESPERANZA TERVALON-DAUMONT: We’re in the beginning stages of trying to see what a good relationship with police can look like in a community that you know, has definitely been at odds with police. Measure Y is a pretty nice step in the right direction. It’s not just about more cops. It’s about what is the role of cops in our community? Cops who are on the beat, on the street, that’s a whole different idea, right?

Tervalon-Daumont agrees there have been issues with managing the finances and maintaining the police force. But she says those were mistakes, not deceptions.

TERVALON-DAUMONT: So I don’t think it was as simple as politicians doing their slick politician dance to get their votes and move more money into their pockets. I think that they wanted to do something good.

And, she says, they did, creating gang intervention, and after school and cultural programs that have provided a lifeline for Oaklanders who’ve lacked support in their communities.

TERVALON-DAUMONT:  That stuff is really useful. It’s different, it’s new, it’s engaging. People in some of the roughest neighborhoods are responsive to people that are part of the street heat team. These community organizations and services that are being provided by Measure Y funds are critical. They’re critical to the success of these children and families and they’re critical to Oakland as a whole.

Measure BB needs 60% of the vote to pass. If it fails, The City Council has agreed to pay for Measure Y’s programs through January, but not after. The measure’s failure would also mean going back to the budget and looking for more cuts, quite likely from the police department. Measure BB’s opponents however, are hoping that if the measure doesn’t pass, the city council and police union will get serious about pension reform.

In Oakland, I’m Rina Palta for Crosscurrents.