Funding “police reform”

Thanks to the two budget workshops held on May 11 and May 20, we now know how much the City of Alameda intends to spend in the next two fiscal years on “police reform”:  $1.35 million next year and $1.95 million the year after that.  But we still don’t know, with any degree of specificity, what the money will be used for.

This may seem a little backasswards.  It’s as if Joe Biden asked Congress to appropriate $1.7 trillion for “infrastructure” without laying out the specific projects he wanted to spend it on.  But Council gave City Manager Eric Levitt no choice:   it previously had directed him to budget for programs it had yet to create and positions it had yet to define.  In effect, the Council members wanted the City Manager to draft a blank check, where the amount is filled in, but the payees are missing.

We’ll discuss the details in a moment.  But first, a bit of breaking news:

On May 20, attorneys representing the mother, two brothers, and son of Mario Gonzalez filed a claim against the City seeking damages for wrongful death.  The amount is unspecified (which is typical).

The claim does not describe what Mr. Gonzalez was doing in the park at the end of Oak Street on the morning of April 19 or how he got there.  Nor does it disclose his connection, if any, to the shopping cart apparently containing liquor bottles (with security tags still attached) he was standing next to.  But it does say that, although Mr. Gonzalez “appeared to be confused and possibly intoxicated at the time,” he “confirmed that he was not a threat to himself or anyone else.”

According to the claim, the first APD officer to arrive on the scene “detained” Mr. Gonzalez “without reasonable suspicion or other legal cause, having confirmed that Mr. Gonzalez was not engaged in any crime and was not a danger to himself or others.”  APD officers then allegedly “placed [Mr.] Gonzalez in unjustified pain compliance holds,” and “arrested [him] without probable cause or warrant, forcing him to the ground when he posed no immediate threat to anyone.”  Thereafter, they allegedly “subjected [Mr.] Gonzalez to prone restraint with significant weight on his back, shoulders, neck, and legs for over five minutes in violation of generally accepted law enforcement standards, while Mr. Gonzalez struggled to breathe.”

The claim alleges that, after more than five minutes of “illegal and excessive prone restraint, while Mr. Gonzalez never actively resisted,” Mr. Gonzalez went limp, “because [the APD officers] were asphyxiating him.”  When the cops “finally got off of [Mr.] Gonzalez’s back and rolled him over, it was too late.  He would soon die from [the officers’] use of excessive force, improper restraint, mechanical asphyxia, and positional, restraint, and compression asphyxia of him.”

Whether the investigations by the Alameda County District Attorney or the San Francisco law firm hired by the City will substantiate the charge that the APD officers caused Mr. Gonzalez’s death by treating him unlawfully remains to be seen.  (As far as we know, despite a tweet by Councilwoman Malia Vella insisting that “this is the type of case that requires the Attorney General, not the DA,” newly installed Attorney General Rob Bonta has not opened his own investigation.)  Indeed, it is not even possible to corroborate the cause of death alleged in the claim – “restraint asphyxia” – because the County coroner’s autopsy report has not been released.

Under the Government Code, the City has 45 days in which to respond to the claim.  If it doesn’t do so, the claim is deemed denied, and the plaintiffs may then file suit in court.

If past practice is any guide, we wouldn’t expect a formal response from the City:  When the Burris law office submitted its claim on behalf of Mali Watkins in July 2020, the City chose not to respond.  (Incidentally, Alameda Superior Court records do not show that Mr. Watkins has filed any suit against the City, though City Attorney Yibin Shen declined to update us on the status of the matter.)

Both Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and City Manager Levitt declined to comment on the Gonzalez claim.  But the Mayor added, “I look forward to the independent investigator’s report being released to the public when complete.”

Now to the budgetary issues.

At its May 8 special meeting, Council voted to direct Mr. Levitt to provide funds in the budget for fiscal years 2021‑22 and 2022‑23 to establish a “pilot program” for responding to “mental-health calls” with someone other than police officers.  (In the meantime, such calls are being routed away from APD to other agencies.)  The City Manager dutifully penciled in $1 million in each of the next two fiscal years for this purpose.

To borrow a word from Councilman John Knox White, this amount is really a “placeholder,” since Council has not decided on the specific non-police response program it wants to implement.  At the May 8 meeting, Mr. Levitt identified three possible “models”:

  • A program – similar to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon – run by a non-profit organization in which a two-person team consisting of a medical professional (a nurse, paramedic, or EMT) and a trained and experienced “crisis worker” is sent out on mental-health calls;
  • A program run by the Alameda Fire Department in which a team consisting of two firefighters who are certified as paramedics or EMTs and who had received “special training” would be dispatched to respond to mental-health calls; and
  • A mixture of the two, similar to the newly established MACRO program in Oakland, which is run by the fire department but staffed by civilian responders (a two-person team consisting of an EMT and a person with “first-hand knowledge” of the mental-health, criminal justice, and drug-treatment systems).

Thus far, Mayor Ashcraft has been the strongest supporter of a program staffed by civilians.  “I am interested in working with people who are currently trained and working in the mental-health field,” she said on May 8.  It was “admirable” that firefighters could receive supplemental mental-health training, but “there’s something to be said for people who are already well-versed” in the field.  She went on to point out that, in addition to attending to mental-health issues, the responders should be capable of connecting people, especially if they are homeless, with social-service resources.

In addition to CAHOOTS, which has been operating for 32 years, the Mayor spoke highly of another more recently established civilian-run program in Oakland called M.H. First, which provides a “hot line” on weekend nights for persons experiencing or witnessing a mental-health crisis.  The program relies on volunteers – many of whom are licensed nurses or counselors – who get training in de-escalation, harm reduction, first aid, and Narcan administration.

Somewhat surprisingly, Councilwoman Trish Spencer has been the strongest supporter of a program run by the fire department and staffed by firefighter/paramedics and EMTs.  “These are in fact our firefighters,” she said on May 8.  “They know our community, they work with our police, we’ve already invested as a City in all these – what I’m going to call assets.”  It “really should be pretty seamless,” she contended, “either to tweak what we currently have or more fully utilize what we currently have.”

None of the other Council members expressed a definite preference for any of the three models – but Mr. Knox White offered a prediction:  The “pilot program” ultimately approved by Council “probably” would “sound a lot like what I heard Councilmember Herrera Spencer saying – use our community paramedicine program [and] build that out” to include responding to mental-health calls.

The eventual choice among the three models will determine whether the $1 million “placeholder” proves to be too high or too low.  We have no idea what the CAHOOTS-style or MACRO-style models would cost, but we can be fairly sure that a program run and staffed by the fire department would be the most expensive option of the three.  At the May 8 meeting, Interim Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck first told Council the City would need to hire a “minimum” of three firefighter/paramedics to be able to offer all-day, every-day service.  A few moments later, he said an optimal program would require six new hires.  As Ms. Ashcraft noted, a single “community paramedic” now costs $250,000 a year in salary and benefits, so hiring six new firefighters to respond to mental-health calls would add $1.5 million annually to General Fund expenses.

We doubt the costs associated with a mental-health-response program run by the fire department and employing six new firefighters would trouble fire union favorites like Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White, but Mayor Ashcraft may be a harder sell.  On May 8, the Mayor entreated Mr. Levitt to “consider[] the budget implications” of a firefighter-staffed program.  Noting the $1.5 million cost, she stated, “I think we should look at what we could get with that money” with a program that utilized civilian clinicians and EMTs rather than firefighters.

Mr. Levitt told us that he hoped to be able to submit another report on the “pilot program” to Council on June 15, the date on which it is expected to adopt the final budget.  It will be interesting to see whether he simply presents the politicians with “options” or rather recommends a specific program.  If the latter, he can count on blowback, on and off the dais, if he doesn’t give the fire department at least part of what it wants.

Council assigned the City Manager another budget-related task on May 8, but it was so vaguely worded that it proved more difficult to carry out.  Mr. Knox White moved to direct Mr. Levitt to “return with a proposed budget for a position of public safety auditor for consideration in the budget discussion that would report into either the city attorney or city clerk’s office and would help to set up a civilian commission that would report to this position.”  He wasn’t “directing [Mr. Levitt] to do it,” Mr. Knox White stated, but was “directing him to bring something back as a part of the budget discussion.”

Even though Mr. Knox White subsequently restated his motion at the request of Mayor Ashcraft (“My note-taking skills may be diminishing with time,” she said, graciously), he wasn’t any clearer the second time around.  As a result, Mr. Levitt can hardly be blamed for not grasping what the Councilman wanted, and therefore no wonder that the first draft of the budget presented by staff on May 11 didn’t contain any line item for a “public safety auditor.”

The confusion deepened at the May 11 meeting, during which Ms. Vella appeared to confuse the position of “crime analyst” (which was in the draft budget) with that of a “police auditor” (which was not).  So Mr. Levitt took the most expeditious way out:  in the second draft presented on May 20, he kept the “crime analyst” position – but added a line item for “Police Auditor, Support Services, Staffing,” with funding of $300,000 in FY 2021-22 and $900,000 in FY 2022-23.

This move appeared to satisfy Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella, but it still remained unclear what the new position would entail.  Asked by Ms. Spencer for clarification, Mr. Levitt replied that the job of the “police auditor” would be to “look at policies and review policies” and report to a “third party.”  He added that an actual job description would be needed before such a position could be advertised or filled.

So what do we know as of now?  Unless further changes are made to the budget, the City will spend $1.35 million in FY 2021‑22 and $1.95 million in FY 2022‑23 on “police reform.”  (In addition to the items discussed so far, this includes $50,000 per year budgeted for “police reform professional services,” but it doesn’t include the cost of the “crime analyst” – $177,000 in FY 2021‑22 and $182,000 in FY 2022‑23.)  But if you want to know what programs the City is going to establish or what personnel it’s going to employ with those funds, all we can advise you is, keep watching.

An update on the “Shuumi land tax”

Two weeks ago, we reported that no Council member spoke up in favor of Councilman Knox White’s proposal that the City pay a “Shuumi land tax,” which turned out to mean donating money from the General Fund to an organization called the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, whose purpose is to “rematriate Indigenous land to Indigenous people.”  Indeed, the surprising news was that Mayor Ashcraft stated that she “agreed” with her arch-nemesis, Councilwoman Spencer, who objected to the donation on the grounds that Alameda taxpayers’ funds should be used to provide services to people who live or work in Alameda.

At the May 20 meeting, the tide turned.  This time, every Council member other than Ms. Spencer supported the proposal – including Mayor Ashcraft.

The Mayor didn’t explain why she had changed her mind, but it appeared that she regarded the amount of the expenditure as de minimis, since it represented only $11,000 out of a $111.7 million FY 2021-22 General Fund budget.  (Addressing the issue for the first time, Councilman Tony Daysog likewise described this amount as “reasonable.”)

And where did the $11,000 figure come from?  Not from City Manager Levitt – it wasn’t in the budget presentation staff prepared – but from Mr. Knox White.  And where did he get it from?  “I did do my own research,” he told his colleagues.  And what research had he done?  He didn’t say, so we asked him in an email, to which we got the following response:

Thank you for the providing me an opportunity to help you. I will see if I can find time to walk you through it at some point, but as I assume you have a timeline that would like to move forward, I’ll point you to Duck Duck Go or another search engine of your choosing all of which can help you identify all sorts of answers for your consideration.

Of course, we hadn’t asked Mr. Knox White for his assistance in “identify[ing] all sorts of answers” for our “consideration,” and neither DuckDuckGo nor any other search engine is geared toward answering the question we did ask:  what research Mr. Knox White himself had done to come up with the $11,000 figure.  So let that remain his little secret.

Nevertheless, there is one area in which we would welcome Mr. Knox White’s help:  What software should we use to make sense of what passes for argument in his public statements?  On May 20, he began by asserting that “almost the entire City budget” is “based on” property taxes – it isn’t; in fact, property taxes provided 39 percent of General Fund revenue in FY 2019-20 – and that property taxes in turn are “based on” the “land that back in the day, we took from the people who actually owned it.”  This “suggests,” he continued, that “maybe we could provide a small pittance to the tribe, tribal leaders, and the organization that are doing work around re-integrating or integrating themselves and working with the community to better engage and understand the folks who continue to be impacted by colonialism.”

This welter of words left us scratching our heads.  We considered running them through Google-Translate, but, alas, it doesn’t offer a “Progressive-to-English” option.


Gonzalez claim: Gonzalez Claim_Redacted

Budget presentations: 2021-05-11 Presentation; 2021-05-11 REVISED Presentation; 2021-05-11 2nd REVISED Presentation; 2021-05-11 3rd REVISED Presentation

FY 2021-22/2022-23 General Fund budget summary (5/20/21 draft): 2021-05-20 Ex. 1 to staff report – 2nd REVISED – Budget Summary REV 050621

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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11 Responses to Funding “police reform”

  1. dave says:

    On May 20, he began by asserting that “almost the entire City budget” is “based on” property taxes – it isn’t; in fact, property taxes provided 39 percent of General Fund revenue in FY 2019-20 – and that property taxes in turn are “based on” the “land that back in the day, we took from the people who actually owned it.”


    The major error of property tax portion of city budget was rather interesting coming from the mouth of someone who never misses a chance to lord over others his precise, granular — and most importantly, superior — knowledge of all things municipal.

    But what really sticks out is the ignorance of middle school level American history. This island was stolen from the Ohlone by a tag team of Imperial Spain and its successor state Mexico. The United States in turn “stole” it from Mexico — though after a military defeat followed by a ratified treaty recognized by Mexico for the last 170 odd years, is “steal” really the right word? Further, if that particular fait accompli of changes in borders and sovereignty really is “theft” that must be “rematriated,” then large portions of the world map are now subject to the Vice Mayor’s whim.

    One suspects the Vice Mayor finds that most appropriate, and his whim very much up to the task.

    • Frank says:

      What is your point? Payment via Mexico? How about applying the logic behind our current legal system regarding receiving stolen goods?

      Re: ” ignorance of middle school level American history,” Wikipedia has less superficial answers. Regarding the Ohlone, “After California entered into the Union in 1850, the state government perpetrated massacres against the Ohlone people. Many of the leaders of these massacres were rewarded with positions in state and federal government.” Citations in the footnotes. It was not unique. In “List of Indian massacres in North America,” Wikipedia lists 29 massacres after our statehood in 1850.

      Or visit Fort Humboldt State Historic Park to see a graphic description. Author Bret Harte, wrote, “[A] more shocking and revolting spectacle was never exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.”

      • dave says:

        The point is that neither Alameda nor its taxpayers stole anything. This is an absurd exercise.

      • Observer says:

        Dave: “Officer, I paid that man $10 for the watch he pickpocketed, so it’s legally mine now.”

        Good luck with that logic. You’re intentionally not reading things you don’t want to see. The person’s point about the current legal system regarding receiving stolen goods is a good one that should be addressed.

    • Observer says:

      The Vice Mayor is Malia Vella, having won the most votes. I believe the most ever in an Alameda council election. Good for her.

  2. Really says:

    Agree with Dave. Mexican War in 1848. Peralta sold the land to a couple of developers in 1872. His father acquired it in 1820s as a Spanish land grant. Where is Alameda legally responsible?

    The Bureau of Indian Affairs has a bloated budget of over $3 Billion with one federal employee for every 111 Native Americans. All taxpayers contribute to that. If JKW still feels guilty he could make a personal $11,000 contribution or hold a fundraiser.

    There is an obvious pattern here. First, come up with a seemingly good cause (homeless treatment center, name change for a park) then after taxpayer or city council approval, change plans to expand the center, or fund an outside entity even though it was not originally proposed. . These are all the hidden costs of a bait and switch.

    • Observer says:

      As one of the volunteers behind the Jackson Park renaming effort, I believe you are correct that the Shuumi tax was not in the original proposal. The original proposal only described the need to change the Jackson name, not what it should be changed to – that was for the community to decide at the tail end of the process. When the name Chochenyo was selected, there was concern that we were appropriating an indigenous name without permission might not go over well. In addition to securing permission, the Shuumi tax proposal was also raised so that it would not be an empty gesture, but a meaningful step in a reconciliatory process.

      And as a volunteer on the wellness center campaign, the council vote was specifically to remove the government zoning overlay, which the voters supported. There was never a vote on a particular design, but to support the site’s use for a wellness center. It’s the opposition dangling prospects of a $25 million park that neither the city nor EBRPD could afford, and the same opposition making vaporous promises of a Merchant Marine museum that no one is paying for – both smoke-and-mirror attempts to intentionally create an abandoned parcel stuck in legal limbo – that has been engaging in bait-and-switch, and thankfully failing. On that note, it is particularly cruel to veterans to use them as props thinking they could get a museum out of their effort, when we all know the individuals leading the charge will fade into anonymity as soon as they get a city decision that serves their own purpose.

      • More observant says:

        Since you were a volunteer/insider you should know you are incorrect.

        The argument filed as part of the ballot measure stated developers would use existing buildings, and in the campaign and before the City Council the proponents maintained the facility would serve no more than 150 patients. The bait and switch is real.

        From Ballotpedia:

        “The Caring Alameda Act takes advantage of an incredible opportunity to save money by using existing buildings on surplus government land and to leverage currently available regional and private resources for the provision of these services.”

  3. TheCircusIsBackInTown says:

    I’m glad that the majority of council can demonstrate learning and growth. On NextDoor, Trish Spencer – clearly engaging in her capacity as councilmember – continues to double down, ironically wondering why we should give a very small amount of money to a group of people who were forced off the land we now call home and don’t live here anymore. Oof, talk about missing the mark.

    I did not know what Shuumi land tax was myself a year ago, but after researching my way through it, I have come around to supporting it. While it’s true that it’s true that it was Spain and Mexico that originally took the land from the indigenous people, that does not absolve the current occupants of anything. In the art world, we know about many museums around the world that contain art and artifacts that were stolen from their countries of origin during colonial rule or looted during war and then sold using perfectly legal business transactions. Many countries and even our own congress have recognized the poisoned roots of these gains and have provided processes – sometimes imperfect – for attempts at restorative justice, including forming research committees, payments, and return of stolen artifacts. We can never make things completely right, but $11,000 for recognizing Alameda’s true history is well intended.

  4. MP says:

    Alamedeñas y alamedeños, here’s a start on the translation:

    pit·tance | \ ˈpi-tᵊn(t)s \ Definition of pittance : a small portion, amount, or allowance
    also : a meager wage or remuneration; Synonyms: chicken feed [slang], chump change, dime, hay, mite, peanuts, pin money, shoestring, song, two cents; Antonyms: big buck(s), boodle, bundle, fortune, king’s ransom, megabuck(s), mint, wad
    Did You Know?
    It’s a pity when you haven’t anything but a pittance. And in fact, “pity” and “pittance” share etymological roots. The Middle English word pittance came from Anglo-French pitance, meaning “pity” or “piety.” Originally, a “pittance” was a gift or bequest to a religious community, or a small charitable gift. Ultimately, the word comes from the Latin pietas, meaning “piety” or “compassion.” Our words “pity” and “piety” come from “pietas” as well. Merriam-Webtser online

    What is DE MINIMIS?: a Latin phrase that means of a trifling consequence and a matter that is so small that the court does not wish to even consider it. Black’s Law Dictionary Free Online Legal Dictionary 2nd Ed.

  5. Karen Bey says:

    During my research of my family’s journey from slavery to freedom, I learned a lot about the abolitionists.

    They were people from all walks of life who supported the freedom and education of slaves. Their support came in many forms. Some of them helped slaves escape through the underground railroad. Some of them were slave owners who emancipated their slaves upon their death and bequeathed them land and money as a reward for their years of service and loyalty. Some secretly educated their slaves to prepare them for the eventuality of freedom.

    Some were lawyers or politicians that used their political influence to create policies to improve the lives of their slaves.

    I spoke with one genealogist who found a love letter from her great grandfather (a farmer) to one of his slaves in his papers that she inherited. She later learned that she was his common- law wife, and to protect her and their children he was forced to list them as slaves on his slave inventory schedule – because Texas did not allow free persons of color to remain in the state. In his will, he bequeathed her over 100 acres of land.

    The more powerful men faced a backlash from the establishment – because it was against the law in many states to free your slaves, or to educate them – or to treat slaves as human beings. Land and slaves (free labor) was the economic engine that created wealth for the upper classes. As a result, those that went against the establishment were mocked and their reputations destroyed to maintain the status quo.

    But some of the more daring men simply did not care about the establishment because they had acquired enough power and wealth to be the establishment.

    The common thread in all these men was their moral consciousness, and their strong sense of obligation to do what was right. John Knox White strikes me as someone who has a strong sense of obligation to do what is right.

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