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Did Defunding Police Cause Oakland’s “Crime Wave”? Here’s What Really Happened.

Media and politicians call the defund police movement a failure, but it hasn’t been tried.

Around the country, media and politicians blame the defund police movement for alleged escalations in crime and a retreat from progressive policies and candidates. In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden, for instance, rushed to denounce the idea. One recent attack has come from the Oakland chapter of the NAACP, which issued a letter last month claiming, “Failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police … and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals.”

It’s beyond distressing to hear a leading civil rights organization disseminating false narratives created by racist politicians and police unions. In light of this, it’s worth reviewing some history.

Defund OPD (Oakland Police Department), of which I was an original member, arose in 2016 out of revelations of widespread police misconduct throughout the Bay Area, but especially in Oakland, surrounding the sexual abuse of an underage woman, known by the pseudonym Celeste Guap. This was just one year after Oakland police killed Demouria Hogg as he slept in his car, two years after the city paid $110,000 to the family of slain teenager Alan Blueford, and 13 years after OPD was placed under a federal monitor for its corruption and violent culture.

In 2017, police received almost 44 percent of the city’s general funds, more than twice the allocation for human services (including to address homelessness), and nearly double the share allocated to police in Los Angeles and Detroit. OPD data on calls for service released in 2020 showed about 16 percent of incidents involved violent crime and 9 percent involved property crimes. The largest number of calls were medical and specified “No officer needed.” Given those facts, Defund OPD’s demand to redirect 50 percent of OPD’s general fund allocation to community safety initiatives seems quite moderate.

The city has never adequately responded to the issues highlighted by the police-perpetrated sexual abuse scandal brought to light in 2016. Some of the officers implicated in OPD’s internal investigation remained on the job several years later, and details of any discipline toward them were shielded from the public. Just a few months ago, federal Judge William Orrick renewed a federal monitoring order, saying that the “cultural rot” in the Oakland Police Department has still not been addressed.

When “defund police” became a national cry in 2020, police organizations mobilized to beat it back by laying every uptick in crime or high-profile violent incident at the feet of Black Lives Matter and any public official in support of the movement. This national reckoning happened to come at a crucial juncture in Oakland’s budget cycle, and the city council surprised activists by voting, in June 2020, to create a task force to Reimagine Public Safety with a goal “to reduce OPD budget by 50 percent by investing in crime prevention and community.” One year later, then-police chief LeRonne Armstrong, the department’s 10th chief in 10 years, linked “out-of-control” crime in the city to the first actual budget cut, which had been approved by the council only days before. Shortly thereafter, then-Mayor Libby Schaaf made international headlines for “reversing course,” saying “defund the police went ‘too far,’” though no cuts had yet been implemented and Schaaf had always publicly opposed them.

Today, newly elected Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao and Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price face recall efforts led by the same right-wing forces who engineered the successful recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022. As in the case of the Oakland officials, efforts to recall Boudin were launched less than a year after he took office. With more than $6 million primarily provided by real estate interests and Republican billionaires, many from outside the Bay Area, proponents demanding a more punitive approach to safety trumpeted small increases in some crimes while ignoring larger declines in others. Oakland’s leaders might remind their voters that since Boudin was replaced by Brooke Jenkins, who helped lead the San Francisco recall effort, violent crime has increased by more than 5 percent in that city.

Crime waves are more about perception than actual numbers. As an Atlantic article explains, “A slew of studies show that individuals form their ideas about the prevalence of crime by following the news. Perhaps people think there’s a crime wave because they keep hearing about a crime wave.” The nonpartisan researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice caution against blaming recently enacted policies for sporadic increases in specific crimes in specific places. They point out that gun violence is increasing rapidly in red states, and that there’s no significant difference in trends between cities led by liberal or conservative mayors. Moreover, police wield an inordinate amount of power over crime statistics because most data is provided by law enforcement agencies.

In October 2022, ABC News investigated claims that defunding has contributed to increasing crime numbers and found that in the vast majority of cities, police funding has increased since 2020. Oakland followed this national trend, with an 18 percent increase between 2019 and 2022.

The defund police movement can’t be blamed for any crime waves, local or national, because defunding simply never happened on a meaningful scale. What also didn’t happen is the redirection of significant resources to community safety initiatives.

Despite an impressive track record, Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention (DVP), which funds anti-violence programs such as community “violence interrupters,” youth cultural programs, “Town Nights” and life coaching for recently incarcerated people, was slated for major cuts in the recently passed budget. Only intense advocacy by the Defund OPD Coalition prevented $7 million in cuts that could have eliminated services to 2,000 people. Meanwhile, OPD received a $41 million increase, nearly equivalent to DVP’s entire budget.

Before amplifying claims about crime waves and who is to blame, any responsible organization needs to look carefully at the data and their sources. You can’t call something a failure when it hasn’t been tried.

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