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Oakland city council's shift on the police force debate, from 'defund' to 're-fund'


Defund the police - it was a demand that rang out across the country amid racial justice protests last year, and it's demand that resonated in Oakland, Calif. The city council voted last summer to redirect money proposed for Oakland's Police Department to social services. But this week, defund the police became refund to the police. The same city council approved two new police academies and voted to hire a professional recruiter to attract officers to its department after a wave of resignations. This shift comes amid a raging debate in Oakland over how to keep the city safe as homicides have spiked over the last year. Nikki Fortunato Bas is the president of the Oakland City Council. She voted in favor of the new measure and she joins us now. Councilmember Fortunato Bas, welcome.

NIKKI FORTUNATO BAS: Thank you for having me.

FLORIDO: Back in June, you and another colleague led this effort to shift $18 million from the mayor's proposed budget for police and spend it instead on the city's department of violence prevention, which uses a public health approach to stopping crime. Why did this shift make sense at the time?

FORTUNATO BAS: I think we can all recognize that our public safety system is broken. It is not keeping everyone in Oakland or in other cities safe. And what we need to do is refund and reinvest our precious public dollars in our community, and that means addressing the root causes of violence and poverty and also investing deeply in violence prevention. And so that's what we did in June with our budget allocation. We invested so that we tripled our department of violence prevention budget so that we could have individuals and programs and community organizations in the most impacted neighborhoods to interrupt cycles of violence.

FLORIDO: At the time of that vote, your city's mayor, Libby Schaaf, said that she was worried this relocation would leave the police department understaffed. And this week, you voted to approve these two additional police academies to help with long-term staffing. You also put off but did not reject a proposal to offer large signing bonuses for new officers. So what's changed since June?

FORTUNATO BAS: So I want to be really clear that from my perspective as council president, nothing has changed in terms of my and our progressive community's commitment to refund and reinvest in our communities that have been disinvested in, to refund our social safety net. What has not been reported as much is that the number of authorized sworn officers has remained unchanged. What we voted on last Tuesday is a more aggressive push to fill 60 budgeted vacant police officer positions that we had already approved in June that are not yet filled because our academy system is failing. And I do want to be really clear, Adrian, that when you hear the term defund now, this particular year after the massive uprising following the murder of George Floyd, that term is explicitly being co-opted by the right wing, by moderate established political forces and by our police union. And what I believe is happening here in Oakland is that other forces are using that term to really stoke fear - more fear in terms of the violence that already exists.

FLORIDO: A lot of people question this idea that increasing the ranks of police actually leads to a reduction in violent crime. Data from a number of police departments around the country suggests that responses to violent crime make up a small fraction of police work. Was any of that on your mind as you voted to add this funding this last week?

FORTUNATO BAS: I completely agree with that. You might hear the mayor and police chiefs say that we don't have enough officers relative to the number - to the population or the number of crimes, violent crimes. But I believe a better metric is, are we actually responding to 911 calls when people call? What are those response rates? Are they increasing? Are we actually solving violent and serious crimes? And we do have data over the last three years that OPD's solve rate for violent crimes has been around 20%. That's abysmally low. And this is a litmus test. Now that the mayor and the police chief have received the additional resources they asked for in terms of academies to fill 60 vacant budgeted positions, can they fill those positions, and will that result in a reduction in violent crime? And that will be really important when we come to our mid-cycle budget in June, as well as when we get to the election in November.

FLORIDO: Finally, what are your constituents saying about this decision to refund the police? I understand you've heard some pretty emotional testimony during some of your recent meetings.

FORTUNATO BAS: Yes. Well, you know, one of the things that was really important as we were working to reimagine safety is to make sure that our decisions increase safety and focus on healing and prevention and results from effective and accountable policing. And for those who are concerned about this vote, it was also about making sure that we're reinvesting and refunding our communities and investing in the root causes. We have to do all of those things. And that's why I think a more appropriate term for what we are trying to do and what I am trying to do is to refund and reinvest in our communities.

FLORIDO: That was Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas. Councilmember Fortunato Bas, thanks for joining us.

FORTUNATO BAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.