Sharpening focus on crime, Oakland reverses major cuts to violence prevention

Sharpening focus on crime, Oakland reverses major cuts to violence prevention

OAKLAND — Of all the budget cuts approved this year by Oakland’s leaders amid a deficit described as the city’s worst ever, reduced funding for the Department of Violence Prevention drew the most public outcry.

But in a climate of high tensions around local crime, the city dug up a solution from the proverbial couch cushions this week — saving the department from an anticipated squeeze on about two dozen nonprofits to which it outsources work.

Late Tuesday night, the City Council unanimously approved tapping a combined $28 million from a parcel tax and the general purpose fund that will allow the nonprofits to continue working on core social problems that result in gun and gender-based violence. As of Friday, there have been 91 deaths investigated as homicides by Oakland police this year.

The money will save the council from planned budget cuts that had ignited fury among residents who said they had directly benefitted from programs associated with the city’s violence prevention efforts. Violent crime spiked during the pandemic and still hasn’t yet declined to pre-2020 levels — though it appears to be easing up.

There’s one catch, however: a 2014 ballot measure that secured the parcel tax for violence prevention expires next year. The lifeboat for those external nonprofits won’t stay afloat for the long term unless a similar measure is approved by voters next November.

“These grants do have an end date, and we have to make sure that we are very proactive in doing the fundraising well in advance of approving our budgets so that we can … hopefully expand these programs,” Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The department will also eliminate a $1.4 million program that offered mini-grants to other community nonprofits that offer services — money that it likely will need to replace through donor fundraising.

Still, Tuesday’s meeting marked a brief respite from what has often felt like a political powder keg in Oakland this year: the question of how to reduce violent crime, and whether the city has done enough.

A mural listing names of victims of gun violence along 60th Avenue near MacArthur Boulevard on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Last year saw 120 deaths investigated by Oakland police as homicides, a pace that roughly mirrors 2023’s pace so far.

It was a comedown from 121 cases in 2021, but still higher than 109 in 2020 and 78 in 2019 — the latter figure reflecting just how much worse violent crime became when the pandemic struck.

While the city’s shortchanging of the Department of Violence Prevention emerged as the most controversial budget reduction this year, much of the focus around crime reduction has centered on law enforcement.

Earlier this month, a group of residents and out-of-towners flooded an East Oakland neighborhood for a rally held by Neighbors Together, an anti-crime group known best for its green lawn signs and aggressively pro-police messaging.

City councilmembers, meanwhile, held town halls throughout the summer to gauge the atmosphere around crime — events that, at times, crashed to a halt when individual speakers began shouting at the hosts.

The City Hall council chamber was similarly packed on Tuesday. But the voices that earned consistent applause had little to do with policing.

Instead, they came from teenagers and young adults who came up through Youth Empowerment Partnership, a local agency that receives department funding, and the youthful speakers who described how they were rescued from the familiar trappings of poverty: gang violence, sex trafficking and drug use.

“When you look at me, you might see me as somebody who has their stuff together. Keep in mind, I was a drug addict for many years and I had mental issues — continuously, still do,” said Carmel Desiree-Ewing, a 21-year-old Oakland resident. “Through this program, I have strength, growth resilience. I was able to finish high school, and on top of that I was a valedictorian … that was because of the funding that you guys put in to the YEP system.”

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 30: Friends and family attend a vigil and rally for crash victim Lolomanaia “Lolo” Soakai on International Boulevard near 54th Avenue in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, June 30, 2022. A group calling themselves the Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team held a vigil Soakai, 28, who died after a high-speed Oakland police chase when the suspect’s car plowed into multiple vehicles. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Marshaun Farris, an adult counselor at the agency, noted how the teenagers had seemed like they were in “cocoons” when he began working with them, but they gradually gained enough confidence to speak about their experiences in such a public setting.

“My family has also been victimized by this community,” Farris said. “My son was shot in front of McClymonds (High School) in the head. He was in Highland Hospital for three days, and all I could think about was if he was going to be all right and the stuff I had to get back to with these kids at my job… because I’m passionate about what I do with these kids.”

In addition to the $28 million in grant funding, the council also introduced new efforts to evaluate some of the core issues associated with the city’s crime problem, namely its often-glitchy 911 system.

Mayor Sheng Thao announced earlier this month that the city would invest $2.5 million in revenues from the Oakland Coliseum site into improving 911 response times — on the heels of a warning from California officials that the city needed to pick things up this year.

It was another example of Oakland’s leadership, facing a structural deficit, finding just enough money to keep things moving.

“We all had to shoulder the responsibility of balancing the city’s budget,” said Kentrell Killens, head of the Department of Violence Prevention. “And we’re a strong, young department with huge expectations, so any potential cuts to service would have had a great deal of impact.”