10 Questions with Pat Kernighan on Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force

Photo Provided By Pat Kernighan

The Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, comprised of 17 members, will engage in an open, transparent, and thorough process—co-led with the community—to create a shared vision for the public safety system in Oakland that is rooted in equity and addresses the historic and current disparities created by racism and economic inequality. The Task Force’s goal is to develop recommendations to increase community safety through alternative responses to calls for assistance and increased investments in programs, services and infrastructure that address the root causes of violence and crime (such as health services, housing, and jobs), with a goal of a 50 percent reduction in the FY 2021-2023 General Purpose Fund budget allocation to the Oakland Police Department.

Various members of the administration and community groups nominated the Task Force. Patricia Kernighan, Mayor Schaaf’s appointee to the Task Force, represented District 2 on the Oakland City Council from 2005-2014. Ms. Kernighan served as Chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee and Finance Committee. She is familiar with Oakland’s budgeting process, the history of OPD, and the operational jurisdictions of partner government agencies. Ms. Kernighan was formerly an attorney. She and her husband raised their two daughters in the GrandLake neighborhood of Oakland, where they have lived for 38 years.

MOBN! sat down virtually with former City Council and current Task Force member, Pat Kernighan, to ask her about her thoughts on the progress and future of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force as the city proposes new reforms. We have included excerpts from the conversation.

You were a council member for almost a decade; how did Oakland change then in terms of public safety and how has it changed since you left office?

The homicide rate was extremely high when I came on the Council in 2005. Then it went down a bit during the next fews. Then in 2008 the financial crash happened and the city had to reduce the number of employees across the board. We had 5,000 plus and it came down to just over 4,000. We actually laid off an academy of new police officers and stopped hiring for awhile, which resulted in a low of 630 officers in about 2012. Crime went up markedly during the low staffing. At the same time, the economy was horrible and many people couldn’t get jobs, so it is not clear what all the causes of the high crime were, but I surmise that both the low number of officers as well as the bad economy played a role. In the past six years, crime and violence have gone down a lot, and I give a lot of credit to the Ceasefire program.The economy was improving at the same time, so that probably contributed as well. The trend was really looking good until the pandemic started.

You said in the first meeting of the Task Force that you feel it’s the first time the city is in a position to really make change in terms of public safety, can you share why you think that time is now?

It’s about a shift in political power. For the first time in memory, the political will exists to take on police departments and police unions to make change. Masses of people were outraged over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It has been recognized that police brutality against Black people is commonplace throughout our nation and that police have not been held accountable for it. It is not just activists that are saying this. The general public is disgusted with racial injustice too. For a very long time, police have been given a lot of deference because people are afraid of crime, and [the police] are the one and only protection. But post-George Floyd and the nationwide protests, that has feeling has changed among a large part of the population. Elected officials can ask for more change and get it because they know that the general public is behind them and they’re not going to be voted out of office for demanding reform.

You’ve described success as looking like “non militaristic alternative responses when people need help” that can be scaled. What does that look like in more detail to the Task Force?

The example that’s always brought up is sending mental health workers, civilians, unarmed people who are trained in mental health, instead of armed police, to respond to calls where someone is experiencing a mental health crisis or acting out for that reason. Which is, I think, a very good idea in most cases. The City has already committed to a pilot project called MACRO based on that concept. They’re just barely getting off the ground, so we need to see how it works in practice. The other one that everyone talks about is sending non-sworn people to address complaints regarding homeless encampments. I personally want even the armed officers to behave in a less militaristic manner when they engage with the public. They could do a better job of de-escalating situations with words, so that using force is a last resort.

You mentioned you had frustration with the millions of dollars the city was spending in the form of settlements in wrongful death/excessive force cases. Can you describe a past case where an alternative response may have prevented a death?

One case that stuck with me started as a complaint about domestic violence. An ex-girlfriend called the cops on her boyfriend who was a barber and who I think was at his own place of business. Witnesses later said he wasn’t harming the girlfriend, she was just arguing with him. [The boyfriend] was on probation or parole because he’d previously been incarcerated. He was out and earning a living and things were going pretty well for him. The police showed up and he ended up running away, probably because he was afraid of his parole being revoked. An officer chased him and thought he saw a gun in his hand and shot him dead. It turned out there was no gun, just a shiny object. This is a very typical scenario when there is a foot chase. If the initial response to the domestic violence case had been by a civilian social worker or something similar, the man might not have run in the first place.

How can the public better understand the distinction of reallocating OPD resources and defunding the police? Is the intention of the Task Force to reduce the number of sworn officers?

That is certainly the most controversial issue for this task force. The City Council, in setting up this task force, declared that the goal was to cut the police budget by 50%. But it didn’t specify a date for that. It did say that the task force should submit recommendations in time for the next budget that would cut some amount of the police budget. The purpose of cutting the budget is to create a source to fund the community services that are needed. But not all task force members want to actually reduce the number of sworn officers. At least not yet, when the city is experiencing an upward trend in gun violence. We are still in the information gathering, idea gathering phase. I’m just seeing where different people are coming from and I think there’s going to be quite a debate. While I don’t think there is agreement on the idea of reducing the number of officers in the near term, I do think that everyone agrees that changes are needed in how policing is done so that they aren’t actually causing harm.

Oakland’s bureaucracy is often cited as one of the greatest obstacles in making change. What is a piece(s) of advice you would offer the new council members?

One of my contributions eventually to this task force will be trying to let other people know where those obstacles are in the bureaucracy. I don’t know what life is like on the street in East Oakland, but I do know what goes on in City Hall, and the obstacles are manifold. It is a very interconnected web of things, including many laws and regulations and union contracts, all of which have laudable goals, but the reality is, the more rules you have, the more rigidity you have. It is also the lack of money and resources, frankly. The City departments just cannot keep up with all the stuff they’re asked to do. I’m not sure the Councilmembers can substantially change any of that. I guess my advice would be to set priorities and focus on just a few goals.

The Task Force deliverables are quite accelerated. Can you describe the goals and timeline? Do you think it’s realistic?

They’re aiming to be done by the end of March. I think task force members are beginning to realize that this very ambitious effort cannot be accomplished in a year, or even two. So they will need to make short term goals as well as longer term, multi-year, goals. The stated goals are to find ways to reduce the police department budget and also to come up with alternative means of preventing and responding to crime, which ideally would be funded by the savings from OPD. And improving public safety in the process. It’s a tall order. I personally am hopeful that some good ideas and models for community-based violence prevention will emerge. Regardless of how it’s paid for and when it can be implemented, I believe we need to move in that direction.

In light of the huge increase in fatal shootings during this year, what are your thoughts about residents who are advocating for decreasing the size of OPD?

I think it’s going to be very difficult to sell to the public the idea that the police should be reduced at this time, though I am not entirely convinced that the police, on their own are going to be able stop this wave of shooting. Ideally, the new programs would run in tandem with the same number of police we have now, at least until the new programs are getting good results. But that will cost more money, not less, in the short term.

The current discussions propose a citywide revision of public safety. How do you think implementing the proposed changes in a designated part of the City as a pilot project might work?

I don’t know the answer to that. Some proposals could feasibly be tested in a limited area, but some not. Criminals don’t respect borders. My guess is that a civilian response to certain kinds of calls could be piloted in a limited area, but also with police back-up while the efficacy of the new service is being evaluated.

Is there anything else that Oakland residents should know about this initiative?

I think one thing to know is that the individuals who are on this task force represent quite a range of not only life experience, but feelings about the police and experiences with the police. Rarely do you see a board where most of the members either live in or grew up in East Oakland and West Oakland. That is true of this board and it is very intentional. These individuals are raising their families literally where the bullets are flying. Though these task force members are not yet in accord on whether to have more or less police, they are 100% in accord that it is essential to invest in services that will address the root causes of the violence and crime that surrounds them.

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