Dan Siegel Essay

What Defunding the Police Can Look Like

A co-author of Oakland's community policing policy explains how it was sabotaged and what real change would look like

By Dan Siegel / Special to Scheerpost

Millions of people in the U.S. and around the world are demanding fundamental changes in what is called the criminal justice system in the United States. Outrage over the murder of George Floyd and systemic, racist police violence has fueled demands to replace a system that rationalizes and perpetuates white supremacy. Policing is the front line of the system. Cops maintain law and order, using intimidation, violence and even death to reinforce the existing social order.

The demand to defund and even eliminate police departments should be no surprise in communities where police presence means violence and intimidation more routinely than it means safety and protection from crime.

In Oakland we have been engaged in efforts to reform the local police for more than 25 years. The reform effort has been a failure. Its most notable achievement has been 17 years of federal court oversight and millions spent on the bureaucracy created to oversee an effort with little positive impact on the lives of people in our Black and Brown communities.

Rather than more of the same, we need a process to re-imagine public safety and create new institutions to do so. Substantial resources must be shifted from the police department to community-based systems of public safety.

Community Policing 1.0

During the 1990s, many U.S. police departments adopted the community policing or problem solving strategy of law enforcement. Advocated by community reformers and the more progressive police professionals, community policing was designed to replace policing dominated by alienated officers patrolling alienated communities from behind the darkened windows of heavily armed patrol cars with a promised partnership between the community and the police to advance public safety.

Oakland’s community policing model, first adopted in 1996, represents that approach: police beats organized along traditional neighborhood lines to reinforce community cohesion; broadly based community councils where neighborhood members work with the police to devise safety strategies that combine traditional law enforcement with social services and education; neighborhood services coordinators — community organizers — to help organize and staff the neighborhood councils and help people access public services and resources; and officers who accept multi-year assignments so they can develop trust with community members.

The success of the Oakland model has been meager, for a variety of reasons.

First, the city never provided sufficient resources for the program. It never hired enough neighborhood services coordinators to allow them the time to actually do community organizing, and most of those hired did not embrace the idea of knocking on doors to interact with the community.

Second, the membership of neighborhood councils skews sharply to middle-class, middle-age homeowners. The councils tend to focus on demands for tougher law enforcement, which only furthers the alienation between the police and the young, poor, uneducated, and unemployed youth who bear the brunt of aggressive police enforcement.

Third, not enough police officers committed to accepting long-term assignments to build trust with the communities they patrol.

A Proposal for Real Change

Changes in police strategies will not have a major impact on crime rates or community-police relationships because the role of the police is to maintain the status quo. When the status quo is based upon increasing income inequality and entrenched racism, poverty, unemployment, poor education, and lack of social services, the function of the police is to maintain order by suppressing challenges, whether the challenges are overtly political or the inchoate rebellion of antisocial actions.

I do not discount the difference between police agencies that demand that their officers conduct themselves professionally and those that do not. But the events of the past year have created a broad movement against police terror and for increased accountability. The reforms demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement and many others will save lives and curb abuses. But police reform is not enough.

The reforms demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement and many others will save lives and curb abuses. But police reform is not enough.

Instead, we need a new strategy for community safety, one that relies far less on traditional policing and more on community empowerment and helping young people and others develop the resources they need to escape poverty.

Community policing 2.0 includes:

1. Community organizing. The basis for community empowerment is an organization that brings people together to plan and work for what they need to improve their lives. Community members should be hired and trained to create and help lead community councils.

2. Community patrols. Community members should be hired and trained to patrol their neighborhoods, without lethal weapons. Their efforts will go towards preventing crimes, both by their presence and by their interaction with young people and others who may be at risk of criminal acts. Rather than the police, community members can be trained as first responders to mental health calls and mediators of neighborhood disputes.

3. Neighborhood centers. Communities need centers where people can find the services they need: counseling and job referrals; educational and health services; and recreation. Centers will also serve as bases for community activism.

4. Restorative justice. Each neighborhood should have a restorative justice circle, with community members trained to make peace between people who commit crimes and their victims and to provide support to offenders to help them become productive members of their communities.

A pilot program should be developed in several neighborhoods. Funds must be allocated to train and hire community organizers, patrol members, and members of restorative justice circles. Resources will also be necessary to establish community centers.

Our goal is a radical change in the allocation and exercise of power — communities empowered to take responsibility for their own safety and for the future of their youth.

Another challenge will be reaching agreements with city officials and police to establish protocols for when police will intervene to arrest people suspected of crimes deemed too serious to be handled by community patrols and restorative justice centers, and when the police and district attorney will defer prosecution to allow issues to be resolved at the community level. Most of these issues can be resolved by city council policymaking.

Our goal is a radical change in the allocation and exercise of power — communities empowered to take responsibility for their own safety and for the future of their youth. If this strategy is successful, communities will be safer; community members will be better able to access and develop the resources they need to improve their lives; and young people will have the opportunity for lives that might otherwise be lost to the system of courts and prisons.

Dan Siegel
Dan Siegel

Dan Siegel is a civil rights attorney in Oakland who has long experience with this issue, from many sides. As the former chair of the Oakland Community Policing Task Force, he coauthored a community policing policy which was approved by the Oakland City Council in 1996. As a lawyer in private practice, he has represented victims of police brutality and protesters whose constitutional rights have been violated, as well as police whistleblowers. He served for a period as chief of complex litigation for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. He was general counsel and, later, school board president of the Oakland Unified School District, which has its police force. Siegel also led the reform of a corrupt public housing security force while serving as chair of the Oakland Housing Authority, part of a reform campaign which led to the receipt of over $90 million in federal funds for innovative tenant and housing modernization programs.

1 comment

  1. The 4 points look good on paper. Finding folks who will take the time to implement, sounds challenging but doable. I live in an older middle class neighbor hood here in Tucson, AZ. The COVID has life upside down for a lot of working non-professionals. I have paid attention to CA and spent quiet a bit time visiting and traveling through, over the years. Hopefully, Oakland can be a good model for the rest of the country. Police officers are not suppose to be all geared up ready to do battle. Good luck, Oakland.

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