The pastor knew this scene too well: A body on the asphalt. Lines of yellow tape. Children pointing at police choppers, low overhead. Jose Rojas sighed wearily. “I pray for this city every day,” he said.
It was the afternoon of Oct. 14, and the pastor recognized the slain man as 19-year-old Jorge Martinez, his former Sunday school student. The teenager and a few other young men had started fighting on 84th Avenue near Birch Street, a pocket of East Oakland where kids zip around on bicycles and neighbors lean over picket fences. One man whipped out a gun and began shooting.
Now Rojas prayed with Martinez’s mother and father, standing beneath the interlaced branches of a camphor tree. The coroner’s truck rumbled in.
Hours later, some 150 people gathered over Zoom for a scheduled meeting with an urgent topic: rethinking public safety in Oakland. But as the hours ticked by, very little was said about the triple shooting that claimed two lives earlier that day.
Instead, people popped onscreen to share bold, sometimes controversial ideas, such as keeping police out of homeless encampments and away from sexual assault cases, banning officers from responding to mental health crises and separating the police force from its 911 dispatch center.
Ginale Harris, a member of Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, was baffled. The night before, someone had fired 60 rounds outside her house, a few blocks from the shooting on 84th. Harris and her 12-year-old son had ducked for cover when they heard the bullets hitting cars and homes.
“You got 100 people coming on there, and nobody says one thing about it,” she said later, a sob catching in her throat.
Heeding the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, Oakland leaders committed over the summer to ultimately slash the Police Department’s budget in half, by about $150 million. The City Council created the 17-member Reimagining Public Safety Task Force to figure out how to meet this lofty goal to “defund the police.” They would write a draft proposal by December and present it to the council in March.
Then a wave of gun violence engulfed the flatlands in East Oakland, home to the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Homicides spiked. Policymakers — and even the most devoted reformers — had to confront a paradox: that the Black and Latino neighborhoods most threatened by police violence are also the ones demanding better and more consistent law enforcement.
Task force members agreed that police brutality against Black and brown people is too common, that gun violence needs to end and that the city needs more services to address the underlying causes of crime. But while advocates wanted swift, dramatic change, others felt conflicted. In neighborhoods with high crime and slow police response times, Black residents winced at what sometimes felt like preaching from outsiders.
A poll released last week by the Chamber of Commerce showed that, citywide, 58% of residents want to either maintain or increase the size of the police force. That figure climbs to 75% in District 7, an area of East Oakland where gunfire exploded this summer.
Notably, the poll showed that support for increasing the size of the police force is higher among Black voters, at 38%, than white voters, at 27%.
Brian Meador says he was 16 when police tackled him to the ground on his way home from football practice. When the officers realized they had the wrong guy, they let him go — along with a broken nose. Meador, now 29, says he was humiliated.
Even so, he raised an eyebrow when he heard about the efforts to cut the police budget in Oakland. On the day of the triple shooting, he came home from work to find his house blocked off by caution tape. This was normal for his block, Meador said. The week before, a police officer had chased someone through his backyard.
“So you cut the police budget in half,” he said. “Then what?”
When a string of police killings of Black people forced a national reckoning this spring, Oakland saw a chance to prove itself. But the city was an unlikely leader in police reform. Its Police Department has spent nearly two decades under federal oversight, stemming from a 2003 civil rights settlement over four West Oakland officers accused of kidnapping, beating and planting drugs on residents.
The city has spent more than $17 million on court monitors and consultants as part of that settlement, which laid out dozens of tasks for police officials to complete to improve the way they train, track and discipline officers. To this day, the department is struggling to comply with seven tasks, including creating a fair discipline policy.
The department was deeply scarred in the last recession and took a long time to recover, cycling through crises and police chiefs. In 2013, when the force dipped to its smallest size of 613 officers, residents of the hills became so frustrated with burglaries that they hired private armed guards to patrol their neighborhoods.
When Libby Schaaf first ran for mayor in 2014, she elevated law and order to the top of her agenda, pledging to boost the police force to 800. That same election, voters overwhelmingly passed Measure Z, a parcel tax to fund public safety and violence intervention programs. It mandates that Oakland retain at least 678 sworn law enforcement officers and bars the city from laying off cops unless the force exceeds 800, a number Oakland hasn’t hit in a decade.
For a while, the city’s police seemed to make progress. The department outfitted officers with body cameras and started a program to recruit cadets from Oakland public schools. Then, in 2016, several officers became embroiled in a scandal in which a teenager was sexually exploited. Once again, public perceptions of the department sank.
Two years later, activist Cat Brooks — co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, a coalition seeking to end police brutality — ran against Schaaf for mayor on a platform largely seeking to strip the police budget. Brooks lost, but said her ideas resonated with a lot of Oaklanders.
“It made sense,” Brooks said. “It wasn’t about, ‘We’re going to wake up tomorrow, and there will not be any police.’ It’s about … ‘Let’s not respond, let’s prevent.’”
It took two more years, and the police killing of George Floyd, for her message to go mainstream. In June, the Oakland City Council passed a budget that shaved $14.3 million from the police department, in part by transferring some services, such as crossing guards, to other departments. The city also budgeted $1.85 million to test a program that sends clinicians to respond to mental health calls, instead of officers.
Then in July, the council approved the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, charged with developing recommendations to more drastically chop police funding. Its appointed members live in all seven districts and all corners of the city’s cultural diaspora, from a former city auditor to activists who openly question whether police keep people safe.
“Oakland is very unique — we made the pledge, and then we created a process,” said Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, who co-chairs the task force and supports efforts to defund the police.
While cities throughout the country were forming similar groups, Oakland’s task force would be more rigorous and thoughtful, Bas said. She’s confident the city can meet its goal.
It just has to devise a plan to get there.
Brandii Hudson watched from her porch as a birthday party on Scoville Street spiraled out of control.
It was a scorching-hot July afternoon on the two-block road in central East Oakland bookended by a church and a corner store. The party was spilling onto the sidewalk and more guests were pulling up, double-parking in the street.
As the day wore on, Hudson and her neighbors got increasingly nervous. Strangers were parking in their driveways and refusing to leave. One party guest snuck around the side of a nearby house to urinate on the fence. Residents began calling the police nonemergency line. Dusk fell, and no officers showed.
Then, shortly after 10 p.m., Hudson was in her backyard roasting marshmallows when she heard shouting: “Put the gun down!” An officer had tackled a man on the pavement outside Hudson’s home. A police helicopter hovered overhead, shining lights into her yard.
No one got shot that night, Hudson said. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that things could have gone worse — or been resolved much earlier, with a single patrol car instead of the five that ultimately showed up. Hudson and many of her neighbors say they are leery of calls to defund the police, seeing it as an activist moment that doesn’t speak to their reality in East Oakland.
“Our response times are already slow based on them stating, ‘We just don’t have the manpower to answer the volume of calls we’re receiving,’” Hudson said. “If cutting the budget in half means losing officers when we already are short officers, I just think that’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
A snapshot of the city’s 911 call log, at 3:21 a.m. on Oct. 18, shows the stark divide and the sheer volume coming from one side of the city.
At that moment, Oakland had 246 calls waiting for a police response. The vast majority — 198 — were east of Fruitvale Avenue, and five in that area were designated “priority 1,” meaning a serious crime had just occurred. Police had stopped taking reports so that they could triage faster.
By Saturday, the number of homicides had jumped to 84, with much of the devastation concentrated in the working-class flatland neighborhoods below Interstate 580. Police have recovered 1,041 guns so far this year, a 40% increase over 2019.
Although East Oakland is the epicenter of the city’s homicide crisis, it is also a patchwork of tight-knit neighborhoods where people look out for each other. Many residents are first-time home buyers with children and essential jobs. Hudson is an emergency room nurse and her husband works at BART. Her across-the-street neighbor, Keisha Henderson, is a social worker.
Residents have similar quality-of-life complaints to their counterparts in the hills or the merchants downtown. They’re tired of seeing trash on the ground. They recoil when needles and other drug paraphernalia pile up in the park or behind the community center. Some don’t want to put bars on their windows: Henderson, a task force member, likes to gaze out toward the hills, with their thick tree canopy and feathering of clouds on top.
Yet many residents also have reasons to distrust law enforcement.
When John Jones III was 12, he says, a group of officers confronted his friends as they played baseball, slamming Jones against a wall and muttering a racial slur.
As a father and activist in the Fruitvale neighborhood, Jones also carries memories of East Oakland during the 1980s and 1990s, when it was besieged by the crack cocaine epidemic, poverty, unfair housing policies and a high murder rate. He says he is reminded of that era today, with COVID-19 widening racial disparities and causing greater suffering in the flatlands.
When it comes to defunding, however, Jones — another task force member — is wary. He said he believes the police budget is too high. But he cringed, he said, when “100 new white folks” lined up at a recent council budget hearing, arguing that police are “harmful to Black and brown people.”
The Oct. 14 meeting of the task force — the one held the same evening a triple shooting left a teenager dead in the street —was its third.
Introductions and presentations went on for more than an hour. Then the 17 members were asked a two-pronged question: Which activities or functions should the police do less or — or no longer do at all — and where is officers’ time best spent?
The ideas came pouring out: Take police off traffic enforcement and vandalism cases. Leave firecrackers to the Fire Department. A couple members disagreed over whether police should respond to noise complaints.
Antoine Towers, who represents West Oakland, was growing impatient. “A lot of us have children and everything that we’re sacrificing in order to be on,” he said. “It’s seeming like it’s a lot of introduction when we should have already dove into a lot of things.”
It had become clear that individual task force members had their own agendas, and with so many competing voices, it was hard, at times, to see how they would reach their common goal. And they had obstacles in their way.
The 2014 Measure Z parcel tax, which pays for police, firefighters, and violence prevention programs, sets parameters for police staffing. Oakland could stand to lose the funds if it tried to lay off any of its 737 officers and command staff.
The task force hasn’t yet discussed these barriers, said Councilman Loren Taylor, the other co-chair. His district includes parts of East Oakland that are most affected by violence.
Taylor said he and Bas have asked the task force to imagine a future of policing unconstrained by tax measures or collective bargaining. They’ll deal with the limitations later, Taylor said.
The politics, too, have proved complicated. When Taylor pitched the task force to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, he was met with tough questions about much-needed policing of car break-ins and burglaries.
Still, as the task force began its work, there were small victories. Participants broadly supported keeping police away from homeless encampment complaints, and sending counselors or social workers to respond to mental health emergencies. More than 4 in 5 Oakland residents favor this concept, according to the Chamber of Commerce poll.
Interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer, who, after much debate, was allowed to join meetings with her command staff, seemed receptive to these ideas.
“We would like to see a more trauma-informed, appropriate service respond to those kinds of calls,” the interim chief said.
People were starting to coalesce around this perspective. Then the homicides surged.
All over the city, people hung Mylar balloons on telephone poles and lined the sidewalk with votive candles, makeshift shrines for victims. In mid-October, hundreds of mourners attended the funeral for Aaron Pryor, a 16-year-old running back from Skyline High School, shot dead 100 yards from his apartment.
Sgt. Barry Donelan, head of the Oakland Police Officers Association, worried the situation would worsen. He agreed with task force members that poverty and desperation were driving crime. But Oakland has to tamp down its killings, he said, and proponents of defunding the police should have “skin in the game.”
To him, that meant starting a defund “pilot program” — with a twist. Officers would retreat from the affluent hills and merchant corridors downtown, areas represented by progressive council members who had pressed for more aggressive cuts to the police budget.
“All of the police resources in those neighborhoods go east, where they’re desperate to combat crime,” the union president said.
Manheimer, the interim chief, distanced herself from Donelan’s comments.
“The department’s position,” she said, “is, ‘We’re here. Our mission is fighting crime. We’re going to do it every day until someone tells us that an alternative is going to do it.’”
Oakland now has five months to present a plan that will succeed where many other cities have floundered.
After Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, leaders there were first to pledge they would overhaul a city’s police department, a promise that sputtered by the end of summer, with no clear path to fulfill it.
In Atlanta, police killed a Black man during a DUI stop at a Wendy’s drive-through in June. The next month, its City Council narrowly rejected a proposal to lacerate the police budget.
New York and Austin have had modest success. The former trimmed $1 billion from its police budget. Austin has set a sweeping goal similar to Oakland’s. And that’s where Bas and Taylor keep insisting things will go differently: The city has a road map. The task force has its eye on a number.
Some residents have become restless, waiting for that plan. In late August, the Anti Police-Terror Project launched its own crisis hotline as an alternative to 911, with volunteers alongside doctors, therapists and social workers on overnight shifts.
With December fast approaching, the task force announced it would push its deadline for draft recommendations back to January, and deliver them to the council in April. Some members said they don’t need a wholesale replacement for law enforcement, but more basic reforms. Henderson, one of several members from East Oakland, said she’d like to see more Black women on the police force. She wants to see officers park their patrol cars and walk a beat, and participate in sidewalk cleanups and toy drives.
Such community policing requires commitment from the department, but it also requires numbers, Sgt. Donelan said. Oakland had some officers walking beats in East Oakland in early March, but the department closed the unit once its labor force shrank, as people retired or left for other cities.
And homicides keep climbing. On a recent Friday night, faith leaders from Ceasefire, a program intended to reduce gun violence, gathered at the intersection of 82nd and Bancroft Avenues. They waved at passing cars. Schaaf, the mayor, stood among them holding a cardboard sign: “Respect, Humanity, Love.”
There had been an encouraging development that day. The police had announced several arrests of homicide suspects, including for the slayings on 84th Avenue, four blocks from the vigil.
Standing on a concrete island in the crosswalk, Schaaf reiterated her support for the task force, while leaving room for her doubts about the budget cut it’s trying to achieve.
“Because there’s been so much advocacy around this 50% number, I don’t think it’s a bad plan to ask this group what would it look like to make this cut,” she said. “And then for the group to then say whether they think those impacts are acceptable.”
Blocks away, about a dozen people had gathered beneath a canopy on 84th Avenue, where Martinez and another young man died the week before. Flowers were strewn on the sidewalk, and someone had spray-painted “RIP” on a nearby tree.
There were no easy answers for the city. Just hope and pain — and meetings.
The vigil continued.