A Political Economy of Policing and Law Enforcement

“Keep out of our fucking way, liberal pussies” – A flyer posted in OPD’s headquarters building.

It’s been almost ten years since a federal judge ordered the Oakland Police Department to make sweeping changes intended to address the department’s many failings, including a pattern and practice of violating the civil rights of Oakland residents. For every step forward that OPD has taken, it seems they have taken two steps back. What’s the deal?

Intent on understanding why OPD seems immune to reform, Ali Winston and I have begun researching a series of articles to delve into the deeply ingrained institutional and structural issues at the root of Oakland’s police problem. (You can read a piece about OPD’s costly legal settlements here, and our latest piece addressing OPD recruitment and residency patterns here). Talking with community members as well as policy experts, one of the most striking problems with OPD we’ve identified concerns the composition of the department’s street cops. It’s a well known fact among Oaklanders that the city’s police mostly don’t live in the city. Using this as a point of departure to analyze police-community relations we have gathered some data that deserves a wider analysis than our own. We’re inviting comments on this blog.

What follows here is a presentation of some data that we hope leads to a broader discussion about the political-economy of police and law enforcement in the Bay Area.

What do we mean by a political-economy of police and law enforcement? Over the last decade there have been numerous excellent studies of the prison-industrial complex, especially here in California where prisons have rapidly grown in their budgets, employment, and numbers of persons incarcerated. With the growth of prisons into a major branch of the state, an entire industry of small and large corporations that profit from contracting with prisons has been created, replete with trade associations, lobbyists, and powerful employee unions. Finally, a pro-prisons political constituency comprised of the local, mostly rural, cities and counties where carceral facilities have become major employers, and local tax revenue generators, has completed the complex. It’s a powerful political machine, now a significant sector of California’s economy that through its redistribution of resources to lock up hundreds of thousands of mostly men of color produces obvious winners and losers.

Surprisingly, police departments have been subject to much less study along these lines, even though  policing consumes more public revenues than prisons, and in spite of the ubiquitous presence of police in every city.

Oakland’s position within the Bay Area’s police and law enforcement economy is characterized by extraction. Because of decades of white flight, capital flight, and the devastating impact of state tax cuts and disinvestment in public schools, Oakland today is wracked by unemployment, poverty, and suffers from a lack of meaningful social and economic mobility for its flatlands residents, conditions that are synonymous with crime within these same communities.

Due to Oakland’s unique history and current political dynamics, harsh law-and-order approaches are most often advocated as the solution to the city’s crime problem. Parsing out the different constituencies that advocate the ‘more cops’ approach is a task that awaits much further study, but we can generally sketch out a picture of who wins and who loses because of Oakland’s unusually large allocation of city tax dollars to policing.

The short answer is that the surrounding majority white and middle class suburban cities of the East Bay benefit from Oakland’s massive spending on cops via the redistribution of tax dollars from Oakland to other municipalities.

Oakland spends roughly 40 percent of its general fund budget on cops. Police services is the single largest expenditure for the city. Compared to other cities of similar size in California, Oakland’s spending on police is much, much higher. For example, Sacramento spent about 23% of its general fund on cops in the 2011-2012 Fiscal year, this in spite of the fact that Sacramento and Oakland actually have comparable crime rates (Oakland has outpaced Sacramento in violent crime, while Sacramento has had more property crimes than Oakland in recent years, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics).

Oakland’s FY 2012-2013 budget appropriates 40% of the general fund for police services, far and away the largest focus of city government. Few other cities, even those with comparable rates of crime, spend proportionally as much on their police. (Source: “Oakland FY2011-13 Adopted Policy Budget”, p. vii.)

What Oakland obtains from its large commitment of tax dollars to policing is debatable. As the department’s budget has fluctuated over the years crime rates have also fluctuated, but not necessarily in a pattern suggesting a causal link. Oakland does, however, lose considerable tax dollars to surrounding suburban cities in the form of officer salaries. Most of Oakland’s cops don’t live in the city, meaning that their salaries and other compensation are spent on mortgages, consumer purchases, healthcare, and other forms of taxed consumption where they live. Thus, by our rough calculations, based on data provided by OPD and assembled from a database of public employee pay for 2010, at least $126 million left the city in 2010 in the form of officer compensation.

OPD’s highest paid staff, nearly all sworn officers, live outside the city, while the department’s lowest paid staff, including administrative workers, are far more likely to live in Oakland. None of OPD’s command staff live in Oakland. In a sense this means that the local jobs sustained by OPD, which recycle Oakland tax dollars into the city’s economy, are the lowest paid positions, giving the city very little bang for its police bucks.

Most of OPD’s sworn officers live outside the city of Oakland. Civilian staff, whose average pay is much lower, are more evenly split, with about 46 percent residing in Oakland.

We’ve mapped the zip codes and salary figures for Oakland’s current officers so you can browse this geography of extraction – http://batchgeo.com/map/d8366c37bee1c93a831bde353442eca1

Oakland’s retired police officers covered under the Police and Fire Retirement System are another means by which the wealth of the city is extracted to surrounding suburban cities, and distant retirement communities. Last year the PFRS pension paid out about $64 million to its 1,085 beneficiaries. Because only 7 percent of these retired city employees live in Oakland, the city exported almost $60 million in funds originated in property taxes or employee compensation.

The PFRS system is especially important in any analysis of how the Bay Area’s political economy of policing affects Oakland’s communities of color because of its history. PFRS was closed to new employees in 1976. The hiring policies of the Oakland Police Department (and Fire Department) in the two previous decades were explicitly racist, excluding non-whites, a fact that produced a pool of PFRS-eligible retirees who are virtually all white men or their spouses. Oakland’s current residents, who have been indebted by expensive pension obligations bonds used to keep the PFRS pension funded, are mostly non-white, relatively young, and majority women. Most PFRS beneficiaries live in majority white and middle class suburbs of the East Bay, but some live as far away as Arizona and Hawaii. Thus not only is PFRS a transfer of wealth between different municipalities, it is also literally a transfer of wealth along racial and generational lines.

OPD procures goods from a national set of vendors including small businesses and large corporations.

There is also the issue of purchasing. The Oakland Police buy millions of dollars worth of goods and services each year, everything from weapons and gear to computer systems and consultants. Policing Oakland’s communities is a big business for a small pool of specialized vendors. About three-quarters of OPD’s procurement is through companies located outside of Oakland. This means that most of OPD’s purchases generate sales tax revenues in other cities and states. While the single largest share of OPD spending is done with companies located in Oakland, the big non-Oakland winners are Berkeley, New York, San Francisco, Dover (New Hampshire), Hayward, Santa Clara, Culver City, and Pleasant Hill. Click here to view a map of where OPD purchased goods and services in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

We’ll be writing more about OPD procurement in the near future, among other topics.

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10 comments
  1. Michael Aquino said:

    Mr. BondGraham-

    I was one of the callers today on KPFA, I’m also a high school teacher. I teach a course in Criminal Justice and would love to talk to you about potentially interviewing you via Skype for my students. We are going to be looking at the current status of law enforcement and some of the issue facing it- particularly how/why departments are at odds with the communities they serve. Feel free to email me if you are interested.

  2. Great data.

    I’m curious if you got the data about where OPD officers live from OPD or elsewhere. Also, how did you come up with the $126 million figure for leakage by non-resident officers?

    • Darwin BondGraham said:

      Hey John,
      Data is from OPD. Salary figures from the Bay Area New Group’s public employee database (http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/83171) were combined with the current officer roster + zip codes for places of residency. $126 million is the sum of all non-Oakland resident OPD staff pay.

  3. The poor management and lack of accountability from OPD never get addressed because of their effectiveness as lobbyists. OPD through the NCPCs and even on police service calls share their opinions about politicians, candidates and their own leaders. OPD decide elections and are therefore immune to accountability from local elected officials. Oakland’s residents get “Crime Plans” instead of professional management and accountability. Council member Libby Schaaf helped Jerry author 11 different failed “Crime Plans”. which he road all the way to Sacramento as Attorney General then Governor. No surprise LIbby’s chumming for meetings with crime stats and new “Crime Plans”. Libby’s not alone, the Oakland Hills now has the MOB (Make Oakland Better Now) a PR consultant, political wannabe think tank/lobbyist group which has its own ‘Crime Plan.” They’re no fools they no how political careers are launched in Oakland. They have Joe Tuman and a cast of other democratic party goers and future political candidates. The politicization of Oakland’s police force and lack of professional accountability are part and parcel of the same problem. Speeches, plans and careers are made on of this mismanagement. The fear and hate inspired campaigns keep us from caring about the waste, injustice and needless suffering this situation creates.

    Thanks Darwin for looking at us with fresh and honest eyes.

  4. ItsHowEyeCeeIt said:

    Maybe the officers know something that everyone else seems to ignore? Maybe an investigation should be conducted if the Oakland Unified School District’s poor performance, lack of basic tax payer services from city government, lack of public safety as Oakland continuously ranks among the highest crime rate in the nation has something to do with officers not living in Oakland?

    Just a thought.

    By the way, I used to live in Oakland. Made a decision that is best for my family.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Hi Alan,
    I think you put cause (cart) before effect (horse) here. Obviously there’s much conflict between OPD’s officers and the communities they police. If you get out into deep East Oakland and West Oakland, far away from the Occupy stuff you’re referencing, you’ll see many signs and hear many stories from people about why they dislike the cops and don’t trust them. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that “weekly F**** The Police” marches and “doxing” are the cause of officers not living in Oakland. The fact that officers don’t live in Oakland, draw huge salaries, and have generally militarized opinions about the city and communities they’re supposed to be serving is itself a major cause of the desperate tactics of activists that you’re referencing. Cops lived outside of Oakland long before Occupy started having FTP marches. In fact the history of why cops moved out of Oakland is partly told in several books, and we recently discussed it on KPFA with some callers on their morning show.
    As for overtime, yes, we accounted for it in officer total compensation, and yes, you are correct that OT is the reason so many OPD officers make lots of money. There’s a deeper story here though about how senior cops lobbied to have junior officers fired when the budget crunch came a few years back, how senior cops protect their positions, and are therefore the major reason why OPD is so expensive to maintain for how few officers are actually on the force.
    But even if you’re correct about the “necessity” for cops to live outside Oakland, the point is still this: the fact that all the cops live outside of Oakland constitutes a huge transfer of public funds from Oakland’s taxpayers into the hands of mostly white, middle class East Bay suburbs. It’s a major problem that perpetuates poverty in Oakland.

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