Community Peace


The violence in Oakland is unacceptable and more attention must be given to this crisis, but public safety should not be in competition with supporting libraries, parks, museums, film centers or services for youth and seniors.

Our community is divided: some would say polarized. Some feel that the 50% of our General Purpose Fund allocation to the Oakland Police Department is justified by the need for police officers to combat crime and violence. They are fearful that the shrinking number of police officers will lead to greater mayhem, and make it harder to attract business and increase revenues. Others, many heard in the recent gang injunction hearings, argue that public safety is a function of better schools, youth programs and more job opportunities – not more police officers.

The point being missed by both sides is that we have been hoodwinked into this ‘false choice.’ The cuts being contemplated for parks, libraries, programs for seniors and other services is not only the consequence of an economy that has gone south, causing declining revenues. The budget deficit also derives from the disproportionate and unsustainable costs of public safety (police and fire) that cannibalize the City’s General Purpose Fund, leaving only crumbs for all the remaining public services.

There is a remedy, however. For example, there are 35 Internal Affairs officers who are paid more than $150,000 and they should be utilized where they are most needed: on the street, not behind a desk. The job that they do can be done for half the price by civilians. Transferring citizens complaints against police should be handled by the City’s civilian agency – the Citizens’ Police Review Board – an agency that is staffed entirely by civilians whose salary is half of that of sworn officers, who do not get overtime pay and who contribute to their benefits package. This agency’s work is more trusted to investigate complaints objectively, professionally and independently because they are not affiliated with the police department. So, instead of focusing on how many officers Oakland can afford, we should be focused what jobs the highly paid sworn officers we already have are actually doing. Are they doing desk jobs or are they promoting public safety and reducing violence?

The more we civilianize administrative and clerical jobs within OPD, the more sworn officers can be re-deployed to do the jobs that matter to the community. Instead of running police academies and re-hiring police who were laid off, the City should hire local residents to do work that doesn’t require carrying a gun, and re-direct sworn officers to community policing and criminal investigation functions. This sort of structural change will save money, and make better use of personnel. In times of financial crisis, the strategic use of resources should be the primary goal of our decision-makers. We shouldn’t need to choose between safety and libraries: we can have both with better management practices.

Please encourage your elected officials to embrace this proposal to civilianize, maximizing the number of sworn OPD officers that are available to do critical work, and also reducing the overall percentage of the City’s budget that is allocated to the Oakland Police Department, leaving more available for libraries and other vital services. Other cities like San Francisco have done it; why not Oakland?

For more, read the following letter to the editor in the Oakland Tribune:

Created: 05-29-2011

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