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).
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.
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.
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.