With seven months until election day, nine out of 16 declared candidates for Oakland mayor debated public safety and targeted the leadership of incumbent Jean Quan before a standing-room-only crowd.
In a tightly-moderated discussion Thursday evening at Temple Sinai in Oakland, the candidates took questions from journalists, querying one another and making closing statements. Many aimed shots at Quan, but most refrained from taking jabs at one another.
“The prison population has tripled in the last 30 years and we still feel unsafe,” said candidate and civil rights attorney Dan Siegel — a former Quan advisor who resigned over her handling of Occupy protests. Siegel advocated decentralizing the Oakland Police Department and putting 540 officers on the street; creating a department that serves all Oaklanders; and treating root causes of crime like joblessness and inadequate education.
Many candidates urged reform of the OPD, better education, and meaningful real-life programs for young people. Candidates also called for creating job opportunities to reduce the number of underage people wandering around the streets of Oakland. Healing the broken relationship between police officers and Oakland residents was a common refrain during the debate.
“Every violent crime in this city is unacceptable and personal to me,” said Mayor Quan, defending her tenure. She added that crime is trending downward, the police academy is adding new graduates, and 47 new officers would land on the streets on Friday. “I’m the first mayor to work with the federal monitor,” she said, adding many of the items under the court-ordered reform plan had been addressed.
Employment prospects must be equalized, Quan said, noting jobless rates in the poorer districts number 35 percent in contrast to her zip code where it is 4 percent.
In her plan to rebuild OPD, District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf vowed to “Fix 911 so people know a cop will come when you call.” She also promised to “heal the relations between police and residents,” and address root causes like enhancing job prospects, improving graduation rates, and addressing the “shameful dropout rate and chronic absenteeism.”
Candidates agreed that the OPD has to undergo serious reform, but they differed on how to rebuild the department, make it more effective and restore public trust.
“It’s not about how many officers we have, but how smartly we use them,” Siegel said.
The nominees all concluded that the city needs to hire a competent police chief, currently the subject of a search after repeated turnover in that office. Civilian oversight over police discipline and more effective implementation of community policing are also key to rebuilding trust with the community, candidates said.
“Community policing stops crime and community policing solves crime,” said candidate and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker.
The fact that many Oakland Police reside outside the city also may exert a negative effect on their job, many candidates agreed.
“In Richmond … they only had like two shootings in the last year. They have officers who are from the city,” Siegel said. “In Jackson, Mississippi, which is half the size of Oakland, they have created a situation where officers look like the city, live in the city, and have very few cases of police abuse. We have to follow those models,” he added.
“There is no harder job than being a police officer in Oakland,” said candidate Courtney Ruby, Oakland’s City auditor.
A safer future
“I’m very optimistic about Oakland’s future,” Ruby said in her closing arguments. “Oakland has the energy to solve the public safety issues ahead of us. It will take hard work. It will take time to find the money. I’ve seen this city get into trouble by not looking at the numbers.”
Candidate and political science professor Joe Tuman, an advocate for granting loans to keep new police officers in Oakland, said, “Public safety is a staple in this city. It’s what the city always talks about… it’s not going to happen all at once. We have budgetary issues we’re going to have to deal with.”
But veteran and Green Party candidate Jason “Shake” Anderson, a former Occupy Oakland spokesperson, said it’s not all about money. Community confidence and support count too. “In Occupy, the crime dropped 19 percent. And that’s because people were taking care of each other,” he asserted. “I think this is the model we should have when dealing with the City of Oakland. It’s about caring for people. Confidence has no budget.”
Parker recounted that he once asked an East Oakland resident, “If the city could do one thing for you what would it be? One of them looked up at me holding her small baby with her and she said, ‘I want a GED and a job.’” Parker continued, “This failure to act among the least of us is going to continue to contribute (to) our city’s problems. We need a mayor that sees it as a moral imperative for every citizen in this city to feel safe, whether at home or walking about.”
Nancy Sidebotham, an accountant, said she is running for mayor because “I’m angry,” charging that there has been “no leadership in Oakland for four years, and machine politics for 35 years.” She told the crowd that they, too, “need to get angry.”
Sidebotham asserted Oakland has become known as “a welfare city,” adding the city can’t just continue to build more public housing without bringing in jobs for residents.
Patrick McCullough, an activist known for his controversial acquittal after shooting a 15-year-old boy in self-defense, said, “All the people up here want Oakland to be better. They all have their (ideas of) how to bring the jobs, the security and the outlook to these people who have been left behind for so long. They’ve heard all this stuff before.”
Amid a mix of skeptical laughter and applause, audience members left the three hour marathon, acknowledging that Oakland’s challenges may go beyond simply electing the city’s next mayor.
Oakland’s next tentative in-person candidate forum is planned for August 21, 2014.