A full house at Oakland’s Temple Sinai Thursday night listened as nine of the city’s mayoral candidates discuss a single issue–public safety. PHOTO/Steven Tavares

OAKLAND | MAYOR | Public safety, the likely signature issue of this year’s Oakland mayoral election, received its very own candidate’s forum Thursday night. Nine of the expansive list of challengers to Mayor Jean Quan offered their solutions for reducing violent crime in Oakland while sharply criticizing the current leadership at City Hall.

“You’ll know when you’re safe when you don’t have to have public forums dedicated to public safety,” said Joe Tuman, a university professor who finished fourth during the 2010 mayoral campaign. In the meantime, polls repeatedly show Oaklanders rank public safety, or the lack thereof, as the city’s most pressing problem. Although nearly every candidate is running on a platform to reduce crime, few described specific approaches or how they woud fund the costly expenditure with Election Day just over eight months away.

Some like Port of Oakland Commissioner Bryan Parker said Oakland’s understaffed police department should increase its number of officers to 800. But when asked how he would pay for the expensive process of conducting police academies and graduating enough cadets to fill those slots, Parker said, “The money is there, but its being wasted” on multi-million dollar legal settlements stemming from the crackdown on Occupy Oakland, an resident injured in a gaping pothole and salary spent on the federal overseer appointed to reform the OPD. Tuman estimated the number of cops needed to keep Oakland safe is more like 900, while Dan Siegel, a well-known Oakland civil rights attorney, offered a more modest estimate of 650-700 officers. “It’s not a question of how many, but how smartly we use them,” he said. Siegel’s plan would assign nine officers and two detective to 60 beats across the city. He says the arrangement will help foster better understanding and knowledge of the each specific neighborhood.

Others were deeply critical of Quan’s leadership over the last three years. City Auditor Courtney Ruby said Oakland has a “leadership deficit” and added, “as auditor, I look at the hard numbers, not excuses.” Jason “Shake” Anderson, a Green Party candidate and member of the Occupy Oakland movement called Quan’s administration “dysfunctional” following the the departure of yet another top city official this week. “Right now, we’re failing at government.” In fact, three of the first four candidates to open the nearly three-hour forum took direct shots at Quan, who often appeared to be staring blankly with arms crossed. Oakland activist Nancy Sidebotham said Oakland’s political machine has run the mayor’s office for the past three decades. “I’m running for mayor because I’m angry. I want change,” she said.

Quan reacted to the comments by saying she takes every homicide personal. “Crime is trending down. It might not be enough, but it’s a beginning.” Quan later deflected suggestions her administration should hold off hiring a permanent police chief until after the election. She says reforms required in the police deparmentment’s negotiated settlement agreement will be fulfilled much sooner with a new chief. Councilmember Libby Schaaf said compliance with the consent decree will only improve the OPD and potentially help reduce crime. Other cities like Los Angeles, said Schaaf, were able to greatly lower crime in the midst of federal oversight. Crime, she noted, is not an “urban tax for living in Oakland.”

However, Parker, Ruby and Siegel pointedly called for a change of leadership at OPD. Parker said police and residents are afraid of each other. “The first thing I would do is hire a competent police chief.” Ruby added, Oakland already had a fine police chief in Anthony Batts, who resigned under Quan, but lost him to City Hall’s micro-management of his department. When a panelist asked Siegel about the city’s poor record of proving cases of police misconduct, he said, “Not only do we need a new chief, but we need some new lawyers.” Siegel said the city’s next chief must make officer accountable for their actions and called for greater civilian oversight.

Patrick McCullough, an attorney infamous for shooting a 15-year-old who attacked him near his Oakland home, sat quietly for much of the forum as panelists repeatedly passed him over for questions. “You talking to me?” he responded with laughter from the audience when a question was finally posed to him. McCullough said youth today are unaware about how they should behave with each other and parents and government are to blame for failing to reinforce common decency. Later, he said private security guards should be allowed to carry firearms to protect themselves. “Ideally we would have police doing that,” said McCullough, “Right now, we don’t.”

This article also appears in Oakland Local.