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
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