As calls for reform intensify, Vallejo and other cities struggle with proper role, budget for police

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis over a year ago, Bay Area cities — like many municipalities across the country — began a discussion on how to reform policing in America.

A large protest movement erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, and many activists, community members and even elected officials pushed to “defund the police” by reallocating municipal resources from police budgets to social services for marginalized communities.

The city of Vallejo hasn’t been immune to these calls as locals ask whether resources should be pulled from a department that has killed 19 people since 2010 and is widely criticized as out of touch with the community it exists to serve.

So far, though, the Vallejo city government has been reluctant to reduce spending on police, focusing instead on ways to also address poverty and inequality.

Mayor Robert McConnell said he’d like to see the city provide more diversified services to the community but that funding would have to come from an increase to the city’s coffers and not from cutting the police budget.

“We have such a small budget, we’re not in the position to cut from one budget to fund other items,” said McConnell. “We are hamstrung by a lack of resources.”

Along with McConnell, Police Chief Shawny Williams and City Manager Greg Nyhoff have succeeded in convincing the City Council to keep police staffing intact. 

“A defunded police department would mean fewer officers and staff to address non-emergency calls (such as a stolen car or home burglary), potentially longer response times, as well as the possibility of increased violence on our streets,” Williams and Nyhoff said in a statement released last year about this year’s budget.

Several Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond, have already begun moving resources into community services, but there as well it’s unclear whether there’s an appetite for shifting resources and actually cutting police budgets.

A San Francisco Police recruitment sign outside the San Francisco Police Headquarters. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

In San Francisco, for example, while the rest of the country was ensnared in the debate about reallocating money, Mayor London Breed plowed ahead, announcing in July 2020 that her city would move $120 million from police to social services in order to address racial disparities. 

About $80 million would come from the police department budget over a two-year period, shrinking its annual $700 million budget by nearly 6 percent. The rest of the money, $40 million, would come from sheriff’s department cuts.  

Called “The Dream Keeper Initiative,” the new funding plan directed needed resources and money into the African American community, the mayor argued.

“We must listen to Black voices, commit the resources and create the programs that will actually right past wrongs and get people resources and services so they can build their futures here in San Francisco and know that their city has their back,” Breed said this February.

But the plan has critics on the right and the left, while funding for police remains largely intact.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association union has argued the city needs to spend more, not less, money on policing, but it also acknowledges the need to spend more on social services.

“Before the misleading ‘defund’ the police movement occurred (it’s really slash police budgets), the SFPOA called for more resources to address the issues that are crushing the soul of our city: homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction,” union president Tony Montoya said in the wake of the Floyd protests. “Last year, we helped found Protect California, a non-profit organization comprised of major law enforcement unions that specifically advocated for more non-police resources to address these issues and more.”

San Francisco Mayor, London Breed. (Photo courtesy Drew Altizer)

On the left, the group Defund SFPD Now argues that Breed’s claim of taking $120 million from police and moving it to the community is an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors show, in which other city departments have been cut more substantially.

“Last year, when nearly every city department was subject to significant cuts, the SFPD budget was reduced by only 3.5 percent or $24 million. For comparison, the public library was subject to cuts of 11.6 percent,” the group said. “Ultimately, no officers were laid off, (and) the scope of policing was not decreased.”

But support for adding more police officers appears to be growing. On June 24, the San Francisco Police Department released the results of a survey that showed that 76 percent of city voters considered increasing the number of police officers in high-crime areas a high priority. The same number said expanding community-based police work in neighborhoods was another high-ranking priority. 

Increasing the number of officers in busy areas (64 percent) and continuing the same level of funding for the police academy (60 percent) also scored high in the survey. 

“Although safety concerns explain some support for more police officers, San Franciscans’ equally strong support for more community-based policing in their own neighborhoods shows that SFPD’s progress on 21st century police reforms is resonating,” San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said in a news release. “We’re also encouraged by voters’ strong support for recruitment — and continuing to hire new police officers who reflect San Franciscans’ values of a more diverse and inclusive police department.”

Across the Bay, the Oakland City Council recently approved an increase to the city’s 2021-23 Police Department budget as violent crime has increased. Oakland has experienced 61 homicides through June this year, a number that has doubled compared to this time last year. 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf originally proposed a $27 million bump to the police budget; however, the City Council ended up redirecting $18 million of that to expand funding for other programs like the Department of Violence Prevention (DVP). The DVP deploys civilian life coaches and violence interrupters to work with victims of gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual crimes.

Following the vote, Schaaf expressed concerns about the redirection of funds away from the Police Department, arguing that the new, reduced budget will “destroy” the city public safety system.

Oakland Mayor, Elizabeth Beckman ‘Libby’ Schaaf.

“Unfortunately, it also cuts 50 police officers who respond to Oaklanders’ 911 calls and enforce traffic safety. It also cuts much-needed future academies, which will significantly reduce police staffing and delay response to Oaklanders in their time of crisis,” said Schaaf in a news release. “It will force our officers to work even more overtime shifts, which are expensive and unsafe for officers and residents alike.”

Oakland has already gone to considerable lengths in considering how public safety might be modified.

Beginning last summer, the city created a task force to study new approaches to policing. The Reimagining Public Safety Task Force crafted nearly 90 recommendations, which “reflect a significant citywide effort to build consensus on strategies to increase equity in Oakland’s public safety system, improve life outcomes for all residents, especially those most impacted by violence, and improve OPD service levels and response times across the city,” according to a memo written by Oakland councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas and Loren Taylor.

Oakland City Hall. (Samantha Laurey/Bay City News)

In addition, while in the middle of the defund debate last July, the city moved $1.35 million to the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO). The program established a group of unarmed civilian first responders to address emergency mental health calls. Under the program, the fire department would send out counselors and paramedics to handle mental health calls instead of police officers.

MARCO was also one of the community programs that received an increase in funding within the city’s 2021-23 budget. Schaaf had proposed spending nearly $3 million on the project, while the council voted to provide more than $6 million to the project.

Those who support the program say that officers are not trained to handle such situations and instead often escalate the already tense situation.

Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) said defunding the police is about ending the reliance on police officers to address social issues. 

“I think a lot of people — masses of white people — are having their idea of what America is challenged,” Brooks said when asked why the idea of defunding the police continues to grow. “(Police shootings) are starting conversations — with many people asking “Is this America?”

Brooks also noted that because of the violent history surrounding Oakland’s police force, Black city residents don’t like calling the police.

“I don’t want to hear gunfire at 11 a.m.,” said Brooks, who lives in Oakland. “But I also don’t want to call the police.”

The Anti Police-Terror Project has also been in the forefront of creating alternatives to police intervention with its Mental Health First program. Persons suffering from a mental health crises between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights are encouraged to call the program, which will respond to the issues, eliminating the need to involve the police. 

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the police force has been shrinking for some time. Mayor Thomas Butt said the department had 157 officers in fiscal year 2020-21, down from 185 in 2015.

Richmond Mayor, Tom Butt at Richmond City Hall. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Last year, in the wake of the Floyd murder, Richmond created a Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force to improve relationships between the community and police force. That task force originally proposed slashing $10.3 million from the police budget and laying off an additional 35 officers.

But the task force softened its position and supported a modified approach approved by the City Council that will reduce the force to 145 in 2021-22. The budget eliminates 12 vacant police positions and moves $3 million to various community programs and services: assistance for homeless, creation of youth jobs, responders for individuals suffering from mental health issues and gun violence intervention. 

Mayor Butt is a strong opponent of cuts to the police budget.

“When you start reducing the number of officers, through defunding, that’s when everything starts going south,” Butt said in a June 23 telephone interview, two days after three people were killed by gunfire at a Richmond house party. 

Butt supports putting officers on foot beats as a way to strengthen the relationship between the department and community.

But foot patrols are labor-intensive and hard to maintain with a shrinking budget.  

When officers are pulled from beats, the community starts distrusting the Police Department, Butt said, adding that the defund movement is causing officers to leave Richmond.

“They are leaving because they are demoralized,” he said. “They feel like the City Council doesn’t like them. It hurts the city because it takes 18 months to replace an officer lost to another job.”

Back in Vallejo, the City Council this month approved a fiscal year 2021-22 budget in which general fund spending on police will increase by more than $3 million, or 7 percent up from last year.

Last year, the Vallejo Police Department counted 114 sworn personnel — including Chief Williams and his command staff.

“While it can be uncomfortable to discuss these types of projections, it is important that we have frank discussions about how budgets impact the Vallejo Police Department’s capacity to respond to victims of crime and help our community,” said Williams and Nyhoff.

The stance taken by city officials and the Vallejo City Council hasn’t stopped the grassroots push for reform. 

Louis Michael holds a photo of a mural in Oakland inspired by the photo of him made by Sarahbeth Maney. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Local resident Louis Michael, whose community group Vessels of Vallejo believes priorities need to be dramatically reset, claims that a survey of community members found a willingness to cut police funding dramatically. 

More than 1,400 participated in the People’s Budget Vallejo last year with roughly another 750 taking the survey in 2021, in an effort to inform city officials on how the community wants Vallejo’s budget money spent.

The survey is unscientific, and it’s unclear the degree to which respondents represent the broader community. 

Yet, started in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Vessels of Vallejo is determined to reimagine the relationship between the Vallejo community and the city’s Police Department.

“Police are just putting band aids over the wounds,” said Michael. “Folks need more opportunities and better access to services.”

Vallejo City Councilman Hakeem Brown favors keeping most police funding in place, but he also says the solution to community problems lies outside law enforcement.

“You don’t police your way to a safer city,” Brown said, calling the “defund” movement a complex issue.

Brown offered specific ideas about how to approach the issue of defunding. 

He wants Vallejo to create an office of equity as a starting point toward reallocating the city’s resources. That office would seek to ensure the city addresses inequality, providing services to those who are traditionally underserved. He said he believes such an approach will help residents get the services they desperately need while not unduly cutting funds for law enforcement. 

“Equity has to start with the city organization,” Brown said. “Then we can have a better approach on how to create resources for needed programs.”

Brown said programs that address poverty, the lack of affordable housing and education are top on his list and should be funded from multiple sources — not just from the Vallejo police budget. 

“It’s smart government to pull from different areas of the budget, including the police budget, to ensure these programs are fully funded,” Brown said. 

Lessons from Bay Area Police Reform; Looking at Past Practice, Future Potential in Vallejo

The San Francisco Bay Area is fertile ground to investigate the role of policing in diverse communities and police violence against Black and other people of color — and to learn what has worked to cut that violence while ensuring safety in these communities. With 8 million people, the Bay Area is a diverse region made up of separate jurisdictions that have different experiences with police reform efforts, some longer-standing (Oakland and Richmond), others more recent (San Francisco), and one just announced (Vallejo). With this as a backdrop, we applied a solutions journalism lens to evaluate four types of policing reforms that have been attempted, with mixed results, to achieve more public safety, more community trust, and less police violence.

Read the rest of the series:

This series was reported by John Glidden, supplemented with data visualizations by Chloe Lee Rowlands, edited by Dan Rosenheim and funded by Solutions Journalism Network.