This guest post was written by Michael Ferro, Frank Castro, and Bruce Nye of Make Oakland Better Now!.
On Tuesday night, Oakland’s City Council will address the City’s growing crime problems the way it approaches most problems: reactively. Rather than confronting the issue with a well-thought-out overall strategy, Council will debate piecemeal proposals: gang injunctions, and curfew and anti-loitering ordinances. Make Oakland Better Now! believes that the real solution to the City’s growing crime problem must involve a comprehensive public safety strategy that dispenses with the current piecemeal approach and the “police vs. social programs” dichotomy that divides the City and keeps us from uniting to solve our most pressing issue.
When he arrived in Oakland two years ago, Chief Batts stated that the best way to reduce Oakland’s crime rate was to address three root causes: gangs, guns and drugs. The City responded by shutting down the police department helicopter, crippling the gang injunction program, and taking a series of budget actions that would ultimately cause a 25% reduction in authorized police officer positions.
Predictably, the homicide rate began to climb. Then came the unimaginable horror of little Carlos Nava’s killing in August. Two weeks later, Jose Esparza was robbed and gunned down in front of his 6-year-old son. The cry went out from City Council members to do something. Council members Reid and De la Fuente urged the Council to reverse its action limiting gang injunctions. Council member Brooks led a crowd into Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting to demand the City reinstate its “Shot Spotter” contract, increase lighting in public spaces, hire previously approved crime analysts, and take other immediate actions. Mayor Quan announced a half-day “public safety summit” featuring “strategy sessions, dialogues and/or workshops” on such subjects as “Gang Awareness, Loitering, Racial Profiling, Restorative Justice, Barriers to Youth Employment, Foreclosures, Volunteering and Youth Mentoring, Sexual Exploitation of Minors, Youth Perspectives on Crime, Truancy, Police-Community relationships, Parolees and Re-Entry.”
Many of these subjects are worthy of public discussion. But some are also code words for one side of a divisive debate that has dominated the public safety discussion in Oakland for years. Instead of looking at our public safety efforts comprehensively, Oaklanders have fought each other over the false dichotomy of “police officers vs. social programs.”
On Tuesday, Council will debate three relatively small public safety measures that involve police activity. Well-organized and vocal advocates for the “social programs” side of the debate will likely turn out to attack the proposals as part of a war on the community, and to accuse the police of racism. Residents who favor enhanced police activity will speak on the other side. No matter what action the Council takes, we will continue to have a divided community. We will continue to make no progress at all toward Oakland’s most critical public safety needs: finding ways to restore an adequate number of police officers to the Oakland Police Department, and even more importantly, designing and implementing a comprehensive public safety strategy for the City.
It is clear that we need more police officers (and far more than the 25 the Department of Justice has just agreed to finance). The ever-decreasing number of police officers is taxing the system to the limit; our citizens are experiencing a drastic reduction in police services. We also need focused, measured, and accountable programs to address the underlying social issues facing all Oaklanders today.How do we accomplish this? We need to make sure that all parts of the public safety effort are working together, and are held accountable for making Oakland safe.
We all agree our goal is to make Oakland safer. The organizations dedicated to this goal include not just the Police and Fire Departments, but a host of groups involved in Kids First programs, violence prevention programs, and the City Attorney’s office. So who coordinates the efforts of everyone involved in making Oakland a safer place? Who aligns all of their efforts to make sure they are pulling together? Who ensures that every contributor to the public safety effort shares a common vision? What mechanisms exist to ensure all players in our most mission-critical endeavor are aligned? And what procedures measure whether all participants are successfully making Oakland safer?
Sadly, there is no such person and there are no such mechanisms or procedures. Until there is a comprehensive public safety plan coordinating every person and every program involved in making Oakland safer, we will continue the pointless and destructive debate over cops vs. programs. Until we align, coordinate, and measure our public safety efforts, we will remain unable to effectively address the crime and violence problem in our city.