According to City Manager Eric Levitt, the long-awaited draft recommendations of the “police reform” subcommittees appointed last October are due to be made public later this month.
Alamedans thus will know very shortly whether any of the five subcommittees, which are composed of from eight to 11 people apiece and are led by a steering committee made up of four Black Alameda residents, will buy into the “vision” promulgated last July by then-Vice Mayor John Knox White and his fellow “progressive,” former Councilman Jim Oddie: cut the Alameda Police Department budget by 42 percent and “shift” the funds to “programs that support public health, wellness and resilience.”
The idea of slashing police budgets and using the funds generated thereby to pay for social services provided by other agencies – misleadingly (and, for Democratic candidates, unfortunately) referred to as “defunding the police” – was sweeping the country at the time. Never one to be left behind, Mr. Knox White, with Mr. Oddie at his side, made it the key plank in the resolution the two Councilmen tried – and failed – to get their Council colleagues to pass on July 14. Instead, Council chose to embark upon the deliberative process that will lead to the recommendations to be presented this month.
When he presented the resolution, Mr. Knox White identified one activist group and five individuals (two by last name only) who he said had “helped inform” the resolution he wanted Council to adopt. Among those he had not bothered to consult was the police chief or any serving police officer. Instead, in proposing a 42 percent cut, Mr. Knox White took call data supplied by the police department to the City Manager at Mr. Levitt’s request and cherry-picked it to suit his own purposes.
By contrast, the steering committees and five subcommittees have sought to get the facts before they recommend any reforms. The steering committee has been meeting once or twice a week since September. The subcommittee chairs join them once a month, and the subcommittees themselves meet once a week. As part of their research, the subcommittees sent 43 requests for information to the City and convened three Zoom workshops at which police department managers, including Interim Police Chief Randy Fenn, answered their questions.
Recently, the Merry-Go-Round looked at the list of information requests and watched the Zoom workshop videos. With rare exceptions, the subcommittee members appeared to be asking for factual information rather than attempting to score political points. They now probably know more about policing in Alameda than – dare we say it – even Mr. Knox White does.
Here are some of the facts the subcommittees learned about police budget and staffing:
- As originally adopted by Council, the police department budget for fiscal year 2020-21 was $36.8 million, of which $29.1 million represented personnel costs. Last June, as part of the regular mid-cycle update, City Manager Levitt recommended that the budgeted amount be reduced by $1,285,000 to reflect anticipated “vacancy savings.” This wasn’t good enough for Mr. Knox White and Councilwoman Malia Vella, who got their colleagues to require, as a condition for approving the revised budget, that the police department not fill any of its currently vacant positions. (No other City department with vacancies was subject to the same condition.)
- The FY 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets adopted by Council authorized the police department to employ 88 sworn officers (the police chief, two captains, five lieutenants, 15 sergeants, and 65 police officers – see the organizational chart below). Assistant City Manager Gerry Beaudin told the subcommittees that, as a result of the mid-cycle revisions, the FY 2020-21 police budget now funds 83 rather than 88 positions.
- At present, instead of 88 or even 83 sworn officers, the police department has only 72 sworn officers on the payroll, but not all of them are available for duty, as some are out on extended injury leave. To comply with the directive laid down by Mr. Knox White in collaboration with Ms. Vella, APD is not hiring any new officers except to replace those who leave, and it has capped its sworn headcount at 73, the number of officers employed last June.
- If APD was operating with its full authorized complement of 88 sworn officers, 46 street cops would be assigned to patrol, supervised by eight sergeants and three lieutenants acting as watch commanders. At present, the patrol cohort comprises only 35 officers, along with six sergeants, two acting sergeants, and three acting lieutenants. Thanks to Mr. Knox White and his colleagues, this gap will remain for the indefinite future.
- The city is divided into five geographic sectors (see map below), and APD endeavors to keep at least one officer on patrol in each sector at all times. During daily periods characterized by a high volume of calls – such as commute hours – more than one officer will be assigned to a sector.
- The number of officers sent to respond to a call depends on the type of incident reported. A call with a “high propensity for violence or conflict” will get at least two officers and perhaps a supervisor as well; other calls with a lower propensity for conflict – e.g., calls reporting a crime that already has taken place – will be handled by a single officer.
- Given the shortage of patrol officers, APD often must shuffle resources around during the day. As Capt. Matt Mullen, the head of operations, explained to the committees:
If one officer of our five is out at Santa Rita jail, which is in Dublin, California, we only have four, and then two are on another call, that only leaves us with two more. Sometimes we have multiple things going on in the city and so they have to triage and decide if it’s safe to send an officer. And other times they will do what they call a tone alert, [where] they notify all officers on the street that a priority call is coming out – a crime in progress is occurring – that we need to free up some patrol officers, whether they’re on a call where they can they can momentarily pause their investigation if nothing’s going on there and respond to the call for service, and then return later. [Or] they’ll be on a traffic stop and they’ll tell the violator that they’re getting a warning and then break from that call. It’s a triage thing. . . .
- The investigations unit, which is responsible for investigating all crimes reported in the city, is budgeted to consist of 13 police officers, two sergeants, and a lieutenant. Former Police Chief Paul Rolleri was forced to shift officers out of investigations and into patrol in order to put as many cops on the street as possible. At present, the investigations unit has only one detective and two supervisors.
- Through September, the overall “clearance rate” for all crimes committed in the City of Alameda was 22.1 percent. For “Part 1” crimes – murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, petty theft, grand theft, auto theft, and arson – it was 8.4 percent; for
“Part 2” crimes, it was 40 percent. (By comparison, statewide, the clearance rate for violent crimes was 45.7 percent in 2019; for property crimes, it was 10.7 percent.)
- According to Capt. McMullen and Capt. Jeffrey Emmitt, head of services, APD used to assign officers to patrol the Park and Webster Street business districts on foot. In addition, at one time patrol officers worked in partnerships, which allowed one officer to handle calls while the other talked to people who lived or worked in the neighborhood. The department no longer has the personnel available for either of these practices.
- In addition, according to Capt. Emmitt, the department used to have a bike patrol and a youth services unit. It no longer has the personnel available for either of these functions.
- According to Interim Police Chief Fenn, APD used to employ a “certified crime analyst” whose job included providing supervisors with real-time data that enabled them to deploy patrol officers for “hot spot policing.” It no longer has anyone in that role.
During the workshops, neither the chief nor the two captains complained about the impact of having been ordered to keep the police department headcount well below the authorized level. Indeed, Capt. Emmitt insisted that, whenever police staffing had been cut in the past, the level of service had remained the same, and that was equally true now.
“With all due respect” to his subordinates, Chief Fenn begged to differ. Alameda cops “still work very hard to deliver services,” he told the committees, “but I can tell you as an outsider [that] this police department runs very, very lean. They provide a lot of service to the community, but they do so at very minimal staffing levels.” He went on to point out that not only did the paucity of officers pose safety risks to the cops and the public, since “we have to be very careful about sending [an] officer solo into a [potentially volatile] call for service until there’s another officer to go with them,” it also made “true community policing” more difficult, since “you have to have enough cops to not only cover calls for service but to get out and engage the community as well.”
Chief Fenn also was asked directly how he would cut the police budget by 10 percent (if Council directed him to do so). His response was diplomatic: “I try to use a scalpel and not a machete when it comes to budget reduction because there’s always a cost to these things – right?” he told the subcommittees. Personnel is the most costly item in the budget, “so you end up looking at personnel first and foremost, but you have to be very careful because wherever you cut generally we find that the demand for service is not reduced just because we’ve cut a program or a person.”
We are confident that, in deciding whether to adopt Mr. Knox White’s “vision” for cutting the police department budget by 42 percent – or in deciding whether to recommend any budgetary cuts at all – the subcommittees evaluated all of the facts they learned during their research. It seems obvious that budget cuts, especially of the magnitude advocated by Mr. Knox White, would require reductions in police department staffing levels. But the headcount already is significantly lower than it is authorized to be. So where would the additional cuts come from? The investigations unit already has been decimated in order to free up officers for patrol, and, even so, there are 11 fewer cops on the street than there are supposed to be. At some point, it stands to reason, the real-world harm would outweigh any symbolic benefits.
The Merry-Go-Round does not presume to speak for the Black community, but the subcommittees would have needed to look no farther than Oakland to find similar concerns being raised there.
After the George Floyd killing, the Oakland City Council voted to cut the police department budget by 50 percent and appointed a 17-member task force to devise an action plan. But it turned out that residents did not invariably endorse the politicians’ goal.
As part of its annual “Pulse of the City” poll, the Oakland Chamber of Commerce asked whether respondents favored reducing the size of the police department. The poll found that a majority of Oakland voters wanted the number of officers to stay the same or even increase. Indeed, 70 percent of the city’s African-American voters felt that way.
A month later, five Black members of the task force submitted a joint letter to the group in which they stated that they, too, didn’t want to see the number of police officers reduced – until the task force came up with a comparable or better solution. If that meant keeping the police force intact while test-running another type of response, the five members said, so be it. “People aren’t fighting for equity, they’re fighting for ‘defund the police,’” one of them lamented at a task-force meeting. “Well, let’s fight for the equity piece, first.”
Of course, the opinions expressed by Black people in Oakland do not necessarily reflect the views of Black Alamedans. But we hope, and trust, that the subcommittees paid at least as much attention to the local Black community – and to the facts revealed during their own research – as they did to the edicts issued by Those Who Know Best among our local “progressive” politicians.
The City has posted the videos of the three workshops on YouTube. Links can be found at https://www.alamedaca.gov/RESIDENTS/Policing-Review-and-Racial-Equity.