In a surprise turnaround, Oakland City Council passed on Tuesday a contentious proposal to establish a new Department of Violence Prevention.
This new department will be tasked with addressing domestic abuse, the commercial exploitation of children, and the high rates of homicide that have plagued the city for decades.
First introduced by Councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Larry Reid in April, the proposal shifts the Oakland Unite social programs, currently housed in the Department of Human Services, under a new director, who will be responsible for building and executing a strategy to achieve ambitious goals — including an 80 percent reduction in murders over the next three years.
In the months leading up to last night’s vote, the council was sharply divided, as critics accused proponents of playing on the emotions of the electorate without outlining a substantive plan.
The last time council discussed the issue, Councilmember Desley Brooks — its most vocal critic — narrowly passed a counter proposal that establish a blue ribbon commission to explore how to best address violence, potentially shelving the Department of Violence Prevention.
Brooks was absent from last night’s meeting, however, and, with Councilmember Noel Gallo left as the sole no vote, the ordinance passed with support from six members.
“What I saw unfolding was a real division in the city council on this issue,” Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington told the Express after the vote, adding that she was encouraged that the new director would work with the commission’s findings. She explained that this vote was a way to bridge the gap between the city’s leadership on how to curb the crisis.
“The bottom line is this work is incredibly important to the city of Oakland and we really need to think differently about how we do this work,” she said.
She and Councilmember Abel Guillen both said they came into the meeting planning to vote in support of the new department.
“I had been skeptical,” Guillen said. “But I changed my mind after having some conversations with [Gibson McElhaney], and certainly [after] hearing from my constituents about the need to do something different to interrupt violence.”
Despite increases in policing budgets, Oakland has continued to rank among the top-ten most violent cities in the country. In 2014, voters passed a measure that put millions of dollars toward funding violence-reduction programs. But the city is still struggling to reduce its homicide level below the five-year average of 93 murders a year.
Most of these crimes affect communities of color — especially young Black men who are disproportionately victims of violent crime.
The new chief hired to lead the department will have to develop a plan utilize social programs to sharply reduce and prevent violence, in collaboration with the chief of police and the mayor’s appointed Director of Public Safety.
According to the ordinance, the plan should utilize a public-health approach, which will be presented to City Council six months after the new chief is hired. At that point, they will decide on the chief’s recommendations, including whether or not to allocate additional funding, or to realign staff.
A deputy chief will also be selected to focus specifically on tackling the high rates of domestic abuse and sex-trafficking, in coordination with Oakland’s CSEC taskforce, the Family Justice Law Center, and Alameda County.
Over the past two months, residents who had been effected by these issues showed up to committee meetings by the dozens and called on council create the new department, sharing stories of tragedy, lost loved ones, and the ways that violence has continued to tear their communities apart.
It is their stories, that McElhaney said swayed the council. “The people did this. This is the people’s victory,” she told the Express while surrounded by elated constituents.
Cheers filled the chamber when it became clear the vote would pass, and advocates filed into the hallway beating drums and exchanging tearful embraces.
An emotional McElhaney was in the middle of the crowd. “What do I feel right now?” she began, then paused to smile through tears. “Hopeful. Grateful. And ready for the work.”