Oakland, CA: A Political Economy of Policing and Law Enforcement

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Eapen Thampy

Innovative and insightful work from Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham. Hard to excerpt, read the whole thing:

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).

Oakland’s FY 2012-2013 budget appropriates 40% of the general fund for police services, far and away the largest focus of city government. Few other cities, even those with comparable rates of crime, spend proportionally as much on their police. (Source: “Oakland FY2011-13 Adopted Policy Budget”, p. vii.)

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.

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12 Responses to “Oakland, CA: A Political Economy of Policing and Law Enforcement”

  1. #1 |  frijoles jr | 

    If only Oakland voters had some way to influance the city’s budget priorities

  2. #2 |  Other Sean | 

    Whoa, whoa, whoa…I’m all for cutting back on bloated police budgets, but why are we suddenly preaching economic parochialism here?

    So today it serves our purpose to make a (totally non-essential) argument that “Oakland police dollars just aren’t going to Oakland stakeholders”. Fine. Now what are we supposed to say when someone proposes a trade war with China? It’s clearly the same principle, so we’ll be reduced to pathetically pleading “Yeah but…that’s different! See autarky is, like, bad for countries but it’s totally great for towns or something.”

    The cool thing about libertarianism is that, unlike certain other philosophies being touted at big conventions this season, our shit actually fits together in a way that makes sense.

    The purpose of a police department is not to function as a some Keynesian stimulus program. Are the points we score by forgetting that really worth the cost of making ourselves hypocrites in some future debate?

    You know who talks about “Oakland jobs for Oakland boys” and “keeping the money in town”? Two-bit ward heelers and rent-seeking cronies talk like that. We shouldn’t join their chorus of sleaze-bags, just because we think there are too many cops sending too many people to too many prisons. There’s a better way to make that argument – the first 3/4 of your post demonstrates it.

  3. #3 |  el coronado | 

    Will have to take your word this is a study worth reading – it’s just hard for me to take anything serious that includes the words, “…because of the devastating impact of state tax cuts..” when referencing _any_ public institution in Kalifornia. Riiiight. Because not only is KA a well-known low-tax state, they’ve also been in the news a lot lately because their state govt is pushing hard for even *more* tax cuts for the folks there. Not.

  4. #4 |  Eapen Thampy | 

    I think you want your police to live locally regardless of any argument about “money” and “where it goes”

  5. #5 |  EH | 

    el coronado: that’s a dogwhistle for Proposition 13, which is a very real problem.

    Other Sean: getting a little carried away? China? Trade war?

  6. #6 |  Other Sean | 

    Maybe I was in a bad mood just then. I apologize for the overstatement and for my tone.

    Nevertheless, the claim that Oakland’s public sector salaries should be spent in Oakland shops is different only in degree from the notion that American dollars should be spent on American products. That’s a noxious idea, worth fighting even in the most trivial cases where it’s applied.

    Eapen: Actually, I don’t grant that at all. It’s one of cliches in criminal justice to say “I want my police to live where they work…”, and it’s just dead wrong.

    For one thing, it leads directly to a lowering of standards in police academies, since college graduates who’ve got their kids into functional suburban schools aren’t about to move back into some decaying urban center in order to land a job with the Metro PD. What you get instead are a) the otherwise unemployable nephews of city councilmen, b) high-school dropouts fresh from a brutalizing experience in the imperial war machine, and finally c) kids who grew up pretty much exactly like you saw in the 4th season of the Wire.

    But more than that, the premise is just silly to begin with. No one would ever say “call me old-fashioned, but I prefer an oral-maxillofacial surgeon who also lives within the arbitrary boundaries of the political sub-division in which I now reside. It’s a trust issue.” What you want from a professional is that he should do his job well. The rest is his own business. (And it’s just really weird to hear libertarians support a policy that gives mayors and police commissioners the right to tell other people – even cop people – where they can and cannot buy a house.)

    You should seriously rethink that position. And as you do, give yourself this test: if a poor black kid from Oakland approached you and said “Mr. Thampy, where I live there’s two things everybody’s afraid of: one is crime, the other is police. Things are just terrible. What’s the answer? What can we do?.”

    Would you look that kid in the eye and say: “Among other things, I believe your life would be better if there were more cops who lived in the same zip code as you”?

    (I know what I’d tell that kid: “The answer is…we have to end the drug war. That’s the only thing that we can do that will fundamentally change anything. The rest is all piecemeal bullshit.”)

  7. #7 |  johnl | 

    About #4, aren’t I better off if the police all live out of town? If they live in my town, they get to vote for the council that negotiates their pay.

  8. #8 |  el coronado | 

    EH – So Prop 13 is still “a real problem” in KA? Really? Google tells us Prop 13 passed waaay back in 1978 – 34 years ago. You’re telling me a state government hasn’t learned to work under rules & budgets mandated by a huge majority of the popular vote 3 freakin’ *decades* ago?!? Then that means only one thing: They don’t WANT TO be constrained by those rules. So while KA state employees pensions get fatter & more generous; while KA creates ever more and intrusive overstaffed bureaucratic & regulatory agencies by the *second*, it seems; while lawmakers and the C-levels of all those wonderful agencies have lots & lots of admin and support staff as well as cars & gas paid for by the state…..Oakland schools are shit ‘because of Prop 13’.


  9. #9 |  AlgerHiss | 

    “OPD’s highest paid staff, nearly all sworn officers…”

    I laugh each time I read about someone being “sworn”. This is supposed to mean something?

  10. #10 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 


    Yes, it is supposed to mean something. It doesn’t, and it doesn’t because there are no consequences when it doesn’t (other than, theoretically, in the afterlife), but it’s supposed to.

    Now, answer me this; what spin does it put on your question that you have taken, as your nom de plume, the name of a traitor?

  11. #11 |  AlgerHiss | 


    You’d rather I besmirch the memory of Whitaker Chambers?

  12. #12 |  TGGP | 

    I was interested when they said the political economy of police (and not just prisons) should be examined, but what followed did little to make me want to Read the Whole Thing. As #1 & #7 pointed out, there was little discussion of why Oakland allocates its budget in any particular way, just a complaint about who is receiving tax dollars.

    If you want to know whether more cops leads to less crime, you’ll want a large sample size and/or some “natural experiments“. Most folks who have looked into that conclude that it does. Part of Mark Kleiman’s plan for reducing the incarceration AND crime rates is to hire more cops. That will be expensive, because police cost more than prison cots. But preventing crime is essential to achieving a low crime low punishment equilibrium.