Defunding the Police in Real Life: How Did This Work for Oakland?

George Floyd mural in Oakland, CA

The concept behind “defunding the police” is nothing new. The idea of diverting money from law enforcement into community services has been around for approximately 10 years, but over the last term, it has become a reality across many traditionally liberal jurisdictions.

This new philosophy may have started with high ideals and good intentions, but has it delivered results? It is safe to say it has, but they’ve been far from good. One example? The city of Oakland, California. An in-depth look at its past 4 years shows important lessons and loud warnings.

Violent Crime in Oakland: Nothing New

Oakland has long struggled with high crime rates, earning it an unwanted reputation as one of the nation’s violence hotspots. The city has cycled through periods of progress and setbacks regarding public safety. As crime seemed to be trending downward in the late 2010s, a new surge began in 2020 – even as rates fell in most other large U.S. cities. This spike corresponded with the rise of the “defund the police” movement in Oakland.

What “Defund OPD” Was All About 

Allegations of police misconduct in Oakland sparked major protests in 2016, which gave birth to the “Defund OPD” (Oakland Police Department) banner. This activist movement quietly gained traction in the background, but during the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, it managed to briefly take control of Oakland’s hearts – and its city council.

Most of this newly gained political capital went towards the “Reimagine Public Safety” initiative. Approved in 2021, this initiative slashed the OPD’s budget by a staggering 50%—from $330 million to just $165 million. The goal was to reallocate these funds to other supplementary services, such as mental health or affordable housing initiatives.

However, this new allocation left many gaps, which local law enforcement had to scramble to cover. Meanwhile, Defund OPD’s public campaign had soured relations between communities and the police officers attempting to serve them. By dredging up old cases of alleged abuse, they stirred up a deep resentment, especially among the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.

The Result: A Tornado of Crime

The impacts of defunding the Oakland Police Department were swift and severe. With the police force suddenly depleted, criminals seemed to sense an opportunity to operate with increased impunity. Incidents of property crime skyrocketed across the city in 2022 and 2023.

Home burglaries became an epidemic, with Oakland recording over 11,000 break-ins in 2022 – a staggering 37% increase from the previous year. Thieves grew brazen, frequently striking in broad daylight. Many residents installed costly security systems and cameras, which proved little deterrent to the crime spree. 

Home invasions also spiked, while car break-ins became rampant. Parking lots near touristy areas like Jack London Square became smash-and-grab galleries.

Beyond the raw numbers, a corrosive sense of fear and unease gripped Oakland’s residents. Retail areas also took a major hit, as the “perception of crime” dissuaded customers and drove away small businesses unable to withstand the costs of repeated theft and vandalism. The city’s reputation as an urban renewal success story lay in tatters.

Lessons Learned on the Oakland Case

While well-meaning, Oakland’s defunding experiment was a prime example of unintended consequences. A poorly staffed and demoralized police force led to more crime and social disorder—something that harms families, businesses, and the overall quality of life in tangible ways. As other cities consider similar reforms, the Oakland case shows how vital it is to have a robust, well-funded police presence as part of any holistic public safety strategy.

This Year, Voters Have the Power – Especially at the Local Level

The 2024 election is a critical juncture that will help determine the trajectory of law enforcement and public safety priorities in cities across America. As bitter partisan fighting rages, voters need to get engaged, study where their candidates stand, and make their voices heard. Examining each candidate’s past trajectories and statements will reveal whether they are friends of the police or will leave a criminal-friendly city in their wake. The future of many of our cities depends on voters doing the right thing at the ballot box this year.

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