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NN promises more police, but some voters dubious

on September 23, 2008


“The first thing you do in municipal government is take care of public safety.”

That was a quote from Oakland resident Charles Pine, who runs the community group Oakland Residents for Peaceful Neighborhoods. But it was also, almost verbatim, a quote from City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. And a quote from Mayor Ron Dellums’ spokesman, Paul Rose.

There is consensus among Oakland officials and residents, almost down to exact choice of words, that safety and crime issues are a top priority for the city. But the consensus fades with regard to an upcoming ballot measure that would increase taxes to expand Oakland’s police force.

Supporters of Measure NN say the measure puts more cops on the street to deal with the city’s crime. The initiative has divided the city’s politicians, though, and faces an ambivalent reception among Oakland residents. This lukewarm response indicates that in November, concerns for public safety may battle another prevailing sentiment in Oakland: a lack of trust in the city’s government.

Measure NN, also known as the 2008 Oakland Police Services Expansion Measure, calls for the addition of 105 police officers and 75 police service technicians over the course of three years. It would also provide for a new data management system that would assemble and analyze crime statistics. City auditor Courtney Ruby, in an impartial analysis of the measure, estimated it would cost over $41 million to implement the full expansion. The measure was introduced by Dellums and approved by the City Council in a 6-2 vote to be placed on the November 4 ballot. Measure NN must be approved by a two-thirds vote to pass.

“If [the voters] want officers in the streets, we need to do it in a responsible way,” said Rose. “We have to make that happen by putting forth a tax.”

That tax would be an annual parcel tax on all residential and non-residential properties. An owner of a single-family residential property, for example, would pay $106 and $177 in taxes for the first and second year of the measure, respectively. For the third year, and each subsequent year, the parcel tax would be nearly $267. These taxes can only be collected if the police department maintains at least 740 police officers on the force.

Those are the specifics of Measure NN, but the debate over the measure has been shaped by another Oakland anti-crime initiative, approved by voters four years ago. The Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act of 2004, more commonly known as Measure Y, increased funding for the Oakland Police Department, Oakland Fire Department and violence prevention services such as gang intervention and youth outreach programs. Measure Y costs almost $20 million per year, paid for by Oakland taxpayers in the form of parcel taxes and increased parking surcharges.

Measure Y has been received enthusiastically by some – this year it has been nominated for an “Award for Municipal Excellence” by the National League of Cities. But others say that, particularly in its funding for new police officers, Measure Y has failed to deliver. Measure Y was designed to add 63 community-policing officers, most notably by adding one Problem Solving Officer (PSO) to each of Oakland’s 57 neighborhood districts. Although Measure Y was passed in 2004, the city did not finish hiring the 57 PSOs until August of this year, partly due to a police department hiring freeze that was already in place when the measure was voted on. According to the mayor’s office, the police department will reach full staffing, with all 63 Measure Y officers, by November, four years after the measure was passed by voters.

Pine, an Allendale resident, keeps a running tally on his website of days that Measure Y taxes have been imposed while staffing goals have not been met. Other Oakland residents share his frustration and skepticism. “They haven’t fulfilled Measure Y,” said Josephine Lee, who lives in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. Lee said the police department was violating Measure Y by moving problem-solving officers away from their assigned beats. “We’ve had PSOs taken for a week or two weeks to work in another area,” said Lee, who is the vice-chair of her district’s Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council. “Sometimes they’re sent to work in West Oakland.”

Jim Dexter, a Montclair resident and a member of the Community Policing Advisory Board, said experiences like Lee’s are common throughout the city. “All the officers that OPD says are Measure Y cannot meet the standards of what Measure Y really is,” said Dexter. “Measure Y requires the officer to be assigned to a specific community beat, remain on that beat, and that the officer do community policing work. There is no PSO that meets that requirement.”

De La Fuente previously supported Measure Y. But he and fellow councilwoman Desley Brooks are now campaigning against Measure NN. “We have failed to impose Measure Y,” said De La Fuente. “The reality is what it boils down to is how you allocate and deploy resources. Until we do that, I don’t think it’s fair to continue asking people for money.”

Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who represents North Oakland and supports Measure NN, said criticism of the implementation of Measure Y was legitimate. But she also said that in her conversations with constituents, she believed that people did want more police on the streets. “I know this is really hard economic times,” Brunner said. “It isn’t great timing – it would be better a year from now. But we don’t have an election next year.”

Not all see a Measure Y and Measure NN connection. NN is “totally different than Measure Y,” said Officer Jeff Thomason, public information officer for OPD. “Measure NN is not just PSOs. It’s an extra 105 officers, with more discretion on where to deploy them.” While funds for Measure Y should only be used to fund community policing efforts, police officers hired under Measure NN can fill different needs of the department, such as the criminal investigations unit or patrol units.

Lee agreed that there was a need for new police officers. “It’s not that I don’t want more police,” she said. Still, when asked about Measure NN, Lee responded, without hesitation, “I am against it.” So is Jim Dexter. “Yes, absolutely it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said. “But what are you going to do?”

Dexter and Lee, along with other Oakland residents who were interviewed or who are active in online community newsgroups, said that their frustration with Measure Y’s implementation has scared them away from supporting a new tax for police expansion. “Don’t come to me for more money,” said Lee, “when you haven’t spent it right the first time.”||||||||||||||||

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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