Ceasefire Audit Finds Failures in Previous Admin; Mayor to Cast Tie-Breaking Vote on Geoffrey's Inner Circle Appeal; AC Transit Failed to Observe its Own Tempo Surveillance Policy

Independent Ceasefire Audit Finds Failures in Schaaf Direction and Armstrong Strategy Decisions

An independent audit completed last month finds critical failures in the City’s Ceasefire program. The timeline of the program’s worst failures parallel with increases in Oakland’s gun violence that began in 2019. Completing the audit was a legislative promise from Mayor Sheng Thao repeated at budgeting sessions in 2023, and the audit was conducted from April to December, based on data and interviews from 2016 to December, 2023. California Partnership for Safe Communities [CPSC] and The National Institute for Criminal Reform [NICR], two organizations involved in the creation and implementation of Oakland’s Ceasefire program starting in 2011, jointly conducted the audit. [you can download the executive summary of the audit below]

The audit finds dual failures in both OPD and the Department of Violence Prevention's [DVP] roles under former Mayor Libby Schaaf's management, noting that the DVP's focus became disjointed and blurred; and that the OPD drained resources from Ceasefire for new crime-fighting projects.

Oakland's Ceasefire "Miracle" Dims

Oakland began implementing Ceasefire in 2012 based on a national model for gun violence reduction. The program, which is in place in several contexts nation-wide, focuses on identifying and targeting the socially networked groups believed to be behind most of Oakland’s lethal gun violence. With the groups and actors identified through analysis and investigation, Ceasefire works a multi-pronged, data-driven approach. The DVP and its attendant Community Based Organizations [CBOs], focus efforts on individuals in the cycle of violence and intervenes with prevention-focused life coaching and services. In tandem, the OPD targets policing on those resistant to accepting services and counseling in favor of continuing acts of violence. The program’s impact on gun violence was previously considered miraculous by many—after Ceasefire’s full implementation, Oakland’s homicides decreased by over 30% over a five year period.

But according to the audit’s executive report all that began to change. The program began to stumble to some degree several years ago, then rapidly deteriorated starting in 2019. The audit’s executive report is surprisingly blunt and direct, stating in its opening paragraph, that “the City of Oakland gradually walked away from the Ceasefire strategy...”

Disorganization and Lack of Communication

The audit report describes disorganized communication and linkage between the disparate departments and elements that run the Ceasefire program—from DVP to OPD, City Administrator’s office, and Community Based Organizations [CBO] that do much of the work of Ceasefire. According to the report, the disparate tasks, data collection and analysis became increasingly rudderless and disorganized under the Schaaf administration beginning as early as 2016, notably the year that the Celeste Guap scandal erupted and saw the departure of former OPD Chief Sean Whent [although the report does not infer a connection]. After Whent’s departure, Schaaf was unable to fill the interim Chief position for months, and the department was de facto run by her City Administrator, Sabrina Landreth.

During this period, the audit finds, “each essential element of the strategy was significantly watered down, resources stripped away, or refocused”—a dynamic that accelerated in 2019 and 2020 and coincided with Covid measures.

Armstrong's Crime-Fighting Centerpiece Gets Specific Blame

One of the few areas of the audit’s critique that can be directly linked to one set of actions, in fact, is the abandonment of OPD’s Ceasefire investigation and enforcement duties beginning in 2021 under former Chief Leronne Armstrong. Ceasefire’s carrot and stick approach relies on targeted policing, but the audit argues Armstrong’s Violent Crimes Operations Center [VCOC], founded in early 2021, drew police staffing away from Ceasefire, exacerbating personnel shortages while failing the VCOC's own crime reduction strategy.

The VCOC was the self-proclaimed center-piece of Armstrong’s crime-reduction strategy, and was aimed at reducing gun violence by successfully closing cases for prosecution as a deterrent. But in the years since its establishment, according to the report, homicide investigation closures actually decreased—thus the VCOC drew personnel from an apparently successful crime reduction program, to focus on a failing one. Per the report:

“The OPD's organizational shift, particularly with the creation of the Violent Crime Operations Center (VCOC) in 2021, by the former Chief of Police, prioritized solving past crimes to boost clearance rates. However, this strategy fails to yield sustainable crime reductions, as evidenced by a declining homicide clearance rate from 50% in 2020 to 35% in 2022. The focus on solving past crimes appears to contribute to the creation of new crimes, ultimately straining the OPD's resources and exacerbating the challenge of solving crimes effectively.”

Lack of Mayoral Oversight and Coordination Called Out

The audit specifically calls out the need for direction and goal-setting from the Mayor over the DVP, OPD, CBOs and other agencies that run Ceasefire. That leaves the attendant conclusion that the lack of Mayoral oversight in previous years is responsible for the unmooring of the program’s elements.

“As supported by agency staff interviewed, the Ceasefire strategy lacks effective management and a clear chain of supervision at various levels within both the DVP and the OPD. There are individuals who do aspects of the work, but no one with the authority to manage all of it with clarity on the performance indicators. This is a departure from the prior strategy implementation from 2011-2018. ….perhaps most importantly, the mayor and her staff will need to make clear who is responsible for gun violence reduction. To do this, she will need to build a cohesive management team focused on gun violence reduction with clear performance indicators for this strategy to begin yielding results.”

Ceasefire Was "Defunded" by Schaaf in 2020

The audit doesn't cover issues of budgeting, but questions about the Schaaf administration’s management of Ceasefire have endured within the City Council over the past several years. In the aftermath of a historic OPD budget overage that drove the City to a fiscal cliff in late 2020, the Schaaf administration made the move to unilaterally cut nearly a million dollars from Ceasefire as part of an emergency slashing of police services—25% of Ceasefire’s budget.

It’s not clear when the funding was restored or how the cut figures into the drain from the police enforcement portion of the program in 2021 to the VCOC highlighted by the audit. Armstrong announced the VCOC in March 2021, around the same time some—but not necessarily all—funding was restored to Ceasefire after ARPA funding became available in early 2021. While other OPD funding cuts remained in place between December 2020 and April 2021, OPD re-funded its sideshow details with the support of Council members Loren Taylor and Noel Gallo, instead of more critical programs like Ceasefire. Despite years and millions spent, the details have had little impact on stopping or mitigating sideshows.

Period of Failure Coincides with Expansion of DVP Under Cespedes

The audit also leaves questions about how effective the expanding, but nascent, DVP has been in managing violence prevention programs with the activities of the CBOs. The CBO's are deliberately disconnected from the City’s efforts to a certain degree due to their work with justice-system involved persons. Much of the critique falls in the years that former and founding director Guillermo Cespedes, who was appointed by Schaaf, spent building the department. The audit is blunt in its assessment:

“DVP is poorly structured to address the service and support needs of high-risk individuals that express interest in services. Organizationally, key staff that would be responsible for locating these individuals and providing services to them are under different chains of command and do not formally communicate.”

The audit also contends that under Cespedes the DVP blurred roles and lost sight of the fundamental goals of Ceasefire.

Audit Organizations Have Extensive Bona Fides

The report will create some pushback from proponents of the mainstream media-bolstered narrative that alleges a cast of villainous progressives are responsible for the rise in gun violence since 2019. But it will be difficult for detractors of the audit to criticize the outside organizations that carried it out. CPSC helped found the Ceasefire program at the City of Oakland, and its current director, Reygan Cunningham, was Ceasefire's first program manager and held the position until 2018. One of the consultants for the organization is Ersie Joyner, a 25 year veteran of OPD who headed Ceasefire until 2019—Joyner was seriously wounded and shot and killed one of his assailants during a robbery in 2020.

David Muhammad is also one of the consulting staff for CPSC as well as Executive Director of the co-auditor, the NICJR, which has been a go-to consultant public safety organization for the City of Oakland for years. Muhammad was an adviser to the Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce, as was Cunningham.

In 2019, CPSC, under Cunningham, promoted a relatively positive audit of the program that found Ceasefire had paralleled a significant reduction in Oakland gun violence*.

The audit will be presented to City Council Tuesday as part of a report mandated during the budgeting session in June.

Mayor to Cast Tie-Breaker on Geoffrey’s Inner Circle Appeal of Residential Tower

The Mayor is set to wade into a thorny development issue that has pitted an influential developer that owns several large Oakland properties against a historic Black-owned downtown business. The Mayor must cast a tie-breaking vote on the denial of an appeal by Geoffrey Pete, owner of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, against Tidewater Capital, which owns an adjacent lot at 1431 Franklin St where the company intends to build a high-end residential tower. The appeal was continued from Council’s last meeting in 2023 when council members tied on the vote, and now awaits a Mayoral tie-breaker scheduled for Tuesday.

Diorama of Oakland Development vs. Black Oakland's Cultural Legacy

In December, the City Council wrestled with what became a writ-small drama of Oakland’s development and gentrification, as a group of mostly Black Oakland residents urged the body to uphold an appeal against Tidewater's downtown mega-development. The appeal is led by and centers around the cornerstone business owned by Pete, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, which will weather the brunt of construction and other outcomes from Tidewater's proposed residential tower at 1431 Franklin St., directly adjacent to the Inner Circle.

A set of dual project alternatives by Tidewater was passed by the Planning Commission earlier this year—a proposal for a 27-story commercial office building, and an alternate proposal for a 20-story, 350-unit market rate residential tower—both located at the space where a parking lot used by Geoffrey’s Inner Circle currently exists. Pete appealed both project alternatives. Pete and other residents who came to the meeting in support of his appeal say the development will destroy one of Oakland’s oldest Black cultural cornerstones. They have framed the development’s impact in terms of decades of losses in Black Oakland’s small business and cultural firmament.

In arguments for the appeals before Council last month, Pete’s representative Tina Muriel noted that both proposals would create potentially business-destroying impacts—including noise, debris and the alteration of the environment around the neighborhood. Never far from the discussion was the fate of Uncle Willie’s BBQ, a now-defunct Black owned business in the same downtown district. The family that owned Uncle Willie's say it was run out of business by falling debris and noise from a hotel constructed adjacent to the building.

Craig Jones, co-owner of Uncle Willie’s, addressed council by Zoom and described his family’s struggle against the hotel development that he said destroyed his family business. Jones’ mother, Beverly Thomas, a co-owner of the restaurant, passed away from cancer in the middle of fighting the development. Jones’ father, the founder of the business, passed away some time earlier.

“This devastating experience is not unique, countless minority owners face similar challenges," Jones told Council. “Tragically, my parents paid the ultimate cost, losing their lives during this long process…they died with the uncertainty about their legacy. Their story echoes the silent suffering of families grappling with the aftermath of destructive development. We cannot allow big developers to disregard our neighborhoods, leaving behind devastation.”

Jones pleaded with the CMs to deny both sets of projects and hold developers accountable to communities.

Other former and current business owners also argued on Pete’s behalf, noting their own experiences as Black business owners in rapidly vanishing Black Oakland.

Barbara Howard, a Black former business owner, described the undermining of her business by development and implored Council to protect Black businesses.

“I was one of those businesses that was displaced here in Oakland, California, in Jack London Village…This is another Jack London Village replacement of African American businesses, of course those businesses are going to die. And how many more African American businesses are going to leave, or die, in Oakland,” Howard said.

Ray Bobbitt, co-founder of African American Sports and Entertainment Group [AASEG], a consortium of investors and developers who are struggling to develop the Coliseum property in the face of intransigence from A’s owner John Fisher, also spoke in defense of Black businesses and Pete.

“In 2020 we talked a lot about economic equality and social justice. That narrative is gone, now we’re back to business as usual…gentrification is more than just about economics. This is about preservation of culture and heritage. We’re not anti-development, we don’t dislike Tidewater, we want Tidewater to build buildings, but just not at the expense of the economic and cultural opportunity of this city,” Bobbitt said.

Former D6 council candidate and board director at California Association of Real Estate Brokers, Kenny Sessions, also spoke on behalf of Pete’s appeal and of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle’s role in the Black community.

“I oppose this building. I’m a real estate junky, but I know this is not good for our community…if that man [Pete] says that he feels that this building is not going to help his business, I think that his word after 50 years is more than enough…we as African American people may lose that place and not have a place like Geoffrey’s to take our clients to do business,” Sessions said.

Pete kept his comments brief, but noted that previous administrations—notably that of former Mayor Jerry Brown—focused on dismantling Black Oakland and undermining Black businesses. Pete’s comments accentuated the theme of most of the other commenters, that the city had deliberately abandoned its Black businesses and culture.

“Jerry Brown in 1998 made this quote in the Wall Street Journal ‘my goal is to dismantle and undermine the Black political machinery that reigned here in the last 20, 25 years…we have been abandoned on a multitude of fronts relative to displacement.”

Appeal Upheld on Commercial Tower, but YIMBY Laws Tie Council’s Hands on Residential

Carroll Fife, the district representative for Pete’s business and the development, led the discussion, initially moving to uphold the appeal against the commercial project. That motion passed unanimously and the commercial appeal was upheld. What appeared to be an early victory by Pete and his group with the granting of the appeal on the commercial iteration of the project soon withered to defeat by the end of the meeting as the Council moved to reject the appeal of the residential project.

After the resolution upholding the appeal of the commercial project was passed, Fife told the attendees that she and the Council’s hands were tied on the residential project. State laws forbid more than 5 hearings on a residential housing project, and require an evidentiary process for appeals finding that significant errors occurred in the planning process and approval. The City contends that no planning errors existed.

Fife argued on the dais that the only option was to reject the appeal and modify the development to counter some of the negative impacts to Pete’s business. Upholding the appeal without the evidentiary basis could cost Oakland its state rating necessary to get affordable housing funding.

Fife had city staff attorney Mike Branson describe the state’s legal structure for residential appeals from the podium.

“The state housing accountability act states that the City shall not deny a proposed housing development project that complies with all applicable, objective general plan and planning standards…in the objective standards inconsistencies must be identified by the local agency within 60 days of the application being complete. Staff here did not identify any such deficiencies. Where no inconsistencies are identified, a local government may deny such a project only if a preponderance of the evidence shows that the objectively compliant housing project will cause specific adverse public health or safety impacts,” Branson said.

Fife noted that penalties for upholding appeals without the proper process under the YIMBY-lobbied laws.

“We could potentially face losing our Prohousing designation…by not approving housing developments to move forward where there is no clearly identified public health or safety concern. The moment we’re in right now does bind us as a city council to move forward developments,” Fife told the audience.

Branson also told Council that by the mandates of SB 330, the appeal could only have a maximum of five hearings with the council meeting being the fifth. Fife thus motioned to deny the appeal for these reasons.

Pete, who allowed his supporters and agent to do most of the talking throughout the night, was visibly upset by the motion despite the amendments, and rose to address the claims by the City.

“If you were as vigorous in advocating for us, we’d have some development in the corridor, in the arts community” Pete said, before his comments became inaudible.

Vote Complicated by Measure X Rules

The vote to deny the appeal of Tidewater’s residential project became complicated, however, due to changes in the charter from Measure X, passed in 2022. CMs Rebecca Kaplan, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Carroll Fife, and Dan Kalb voted to deny the appeal, but all legislation before Council needs at least 5 positive votes to pass.

Only Gallo voted no on the appeal denial. CM Kevin Jenkins abstained from the difficult vote, and CMs Treva Reid and Janani Ramachandran missed the entire meeting with an excused absence. Ramachandran has made it a habit, in her short tenure, to be absent for votes that pit developers against Oakland’s Black community. Reid has generally supported big developments in her term and a half.

With only 4 positive votes, the appeal would have failed in previous years, but with the advent of Measure X in 2022, all abstentions and absences are tallied as no votes to determine whether a mayoral tie breaker is required—thus, Jenkins abstention and Ramachandran and Reid’s absence counted as nays for the purposes of determining whether a tie had occurred. Under the Charter, the Mayor has the option of appearing at the same meeting the tie occurs, or at another in the future—Thao did not appear for the vote, which happened around midnight, so the item was continued solely for the purposes of recasting the vote with tie-breaking. The appeal tie-breaker is scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting. Thao seems more likely to vote to deny the appeal than not, but there’s no further information at this time.

Tidewater owns several large buildings in Oakland, including a nearby building that Pete and supporters argue should be the site for the tower. Tidewater also owns the Eastmont Mall and a parking lot at 533 Kirkham intended for another, similar residential tower. Near the Kirkham property, a similar project was recently foreclosed by its lender after being purchased by Panoramic properties from the City of Oakland several years ago.

AC Transit Failed to Follow Policy Requirements for Tempo Cameras

Public documents obtained by the Oakland Observer strongly suggest that AC Transit [ACT] failed to follow its own policies on the surveillance system for Tempo platforms installed primarily in East Oakland. ACT’s Tempo line begins adjacent to City Center in downtown Oakland, but most of the system runs through the International Blvd corridor—over 20 median stations are located through East Oakland with cameras pointed at the public right of way. The cameras capture housing, schools, businesses, and churches 24 hours a day on both sides of the street.

ACT Grudgingly Took on Policy After Pressure from Advocates

Tempo had originally been intended to go live in late 2019 but was delayed into 2020. Yet ACT did not create a use policy for the surveillance system in 2019, and only produced a policy after pushback from privacy advocates a month after Tempo went live in August 2020. Though the same privacy advocates that had urged the creation of the use policy asked the ACT board to revise and strengthen the policy before voting, the board moved forward and passed it at a September board meeting.

The policy required regular audits and annual reports on how ACT uses the surveillance system. The policy also prohibits any law enforcement agency except for the ALCO Sheriff, which is the official policing entity for ACT, from accessing footage without a court order.

The Oakland Observer filed a request for the stipulated annual reports and “periodic” audits in August, 2023. ACT’s response should have consisted of at least three annual reports and various periodic audits. But on January 1, 2024, ACT provided only two documents in response to the request on its Nextrequest system. ACT immediately closed the request with the claim that all documents had been released.

The released documents consisted of only one audit covering the entire three-year span of the Tempo system and a spreadsheet noting completed requests for Tempo video from various law enforcement agencies and public records requests. The audit was apparently the only one conducted in the three-year time span, and the timing—conducted after the receipt of the request—suggests it was only created to satisfy the request.

Regardless, the audit notes that AC Transit did not follow its own policy in releasing video to law enforcement agencies over the three-year period of the policy. According to the policy passed in 2020, AC Transit’s internal process clears all requests with Legal department and the Protective Services Manager—but 42% of the 101 non-ALCO Sheriff requests for video showed no evidence of having been approved by those bodies or readily viewable evidence that court-ordered search warrant had been obtained.

From the 147 video requests we reviewed, 101 were from the Oakland police (84) and San Leandro police (17) departments and thus requiring court-ordered search warrants. Of these 101 video requests, we could not find written evidence of Legal or Protective Services department approval on 42 (or 42%) of these requests. It is important that video requests requiring court-ordered search warrants are reviewed and properly approved by Legal or Protective Services to ensure that they were properly executed.

Additionally, no annual reports were provided in the request—despite language by this publication requesting a statement from AC Transit that would read “no such records exist” if that were to be the case. A request for more information along these lines was unanswered by press time. Presumably, ACT never followed its own policy and failed to produce Tempo surveillance system annual reports.

The failures occur as a worrisome number of deaths and injuries on the Tempo-altered International corridor infrastructure have occurred as well. More as this story develops.

In Brief:

Council Rules of Procedure Pass without Discussion

The Council’s new rules of procedure passed at the last meeting of 2023, ironically, after midnight. They will be the new rules for Council meetings starting Tuesday 1/16. You can see them here.

Second $6.5 MM Settlement for Dangerous Road Conditions in Two Months

Last month, Council voted to settle a $6.5 MM dangerous road conditions lawsuit, stemming from a 2020 bicycle accident on MacArthur Boulevard that left the plaintiff with serious injuries. At the time, the amount of that payout set the record paid by the City of Oakland for a dangerous-conditions suit—but this month, an eerily similar suit will be settled for the same amount. That additional $6.5 MM payout means that the City will settle back-to-back record-breaking payouts for road-condition suits. In the report for this suit, perhaps owing to negative publicity from the last settlement, the City’s report notes that its group insurance covers much of the cost, leaving about $3 MM that will be paid directly from city funds. That’s also probably the reality for the previous suit. But with each payout, rates increase as well. According to this article from Oaklandside, the City has settled $35 MM worth of dangerous road-conditions suits in the past decade.

Former Police Commissioner Turns in Paperwork for Recall Effort Against Oakland Mayor Thao

Brenda Harbin-Forte, a former Police Commissioner and judge, announced last week that she had turned in the necessary voter signatures to begin the process for a mayoral recall. Harbin-Forte did not release a copy of the petition that includes the 250 signatures necessary to start the process. If the signatures are deemed to be valid, Harbin-Forte will have 160 days to collect the ~25,000 signatures necessary to trigger a recall election, which under Oakland’s charter is conducted under California state rules for local office recalls.

Supporters of the Recall [and of the Price Recall] rallied at City Hall ahead of the recall announcement—about 10 people. Three of the attendees wore Trump paraphernalia and at least two are candidates for local office associated with the Larouche organization. Mindy Pechenuk, a perennial state assembly candidate, is currently funded by Larouche PAC. Other attendees have been associated with the Price Recall.

Harbin-Forte was appointed by former mayor Libby Schaaf. Her term expired last October, but Thao declined to replace her and allowed her to continue in the role. After well-publicized conflicts with other members, and at the request of the Coalition for Police Accountability and two Commissioners, Thao removed Harbin-Forte without replacing her. Harbin-Forte, like a majority of Commissioners serving when she was removed, is a supporter of former police chief Armstrong and was one of the Commissioners who voted for the slate that contained his application in 2020.

More on all this if the initial petition signatures are confirmed.

Police Commission Chair/Vice Chair, Responsible for Rejected Chief Slate Unanimously Re-Elected to Positions

Oakland Police Commission Chair Marsha Peterson and Vice Chair Karely Ordaz were re-appointed to their respective positions by a unanimous vote of Commissioners present at Thursday’s meeting. The vote occurs at the top of each year for the rotating positions. Peterson lost the last vote to former Police Commissioner Milele in 2023.

Peterson and Ordaz, along with fellow Commissioner Regina Jackson, boycotted over a month’s worth of meetings during the final phase of the previous leadership’s Chief search—causing the body to be unable to meet for most of September and October. The former Commission Chair and Vice Chair, Tyfarah Milele and David Jordan, were—like their current counterparts—two-thirds of the hiring committee whose job it was to create the final slate.

But the deliberate boycott prevented the slate from reaching the full Commission vote, meaning it could not be forwarded to Mayor Sheng Thao for final selection. That delayed the hiring process by months. Once Jordan and Milele’s terms ended in October, the three began to attend meetings again, and were nominated for the Chair and Vice Chair positions.

After rising to Chair, Peterson subsequently appointed herself, Ordaz, and Jackson to the hiring committee, and—in a process which took another month—submitted the slate to the Mayor without announcing its content to the public. The slate contained Armstrong, San Leandro’s police chief Abdul Pridgen, who is currently under administrative leave, and a third choice from Arizona. The entire slate was rejected by Thao, who had previously stated she would under no circumstances re-hire Armstrong.

The hiring process has started anew with new recruitment and is now likely to continue until at least March. Had Peterson and Ordaz failed to be reappointed, the new Chair could have changed the composition of the hiring committee—something only Peterson can currently do.

Council This Week

This year’s first Council meeting starts out light on Tuesday 1/16, with a new starting time of 3:30 PM, according to the rules of procedure changes enacted in December. There will be two big issues at the meeting: the tie-breaker for the Tidewater Appeal and the discussion of the Ceasefire audit. The Ceasefire audit will be discussed in the context of an informational report on public safety, as required in the budget vote of June 2023.

*Correction: the California Partnership for Safe Communities participated with data and support for the 2019 evaluation and promoted that study, but was not the body that carried out the study as the original text suggested. The text has been updated to reflect the role as promoting the study and aiding it, but not the body that carried it out.

Here's a copy of the full Ceasefire Audit report