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Regional Interests

How Expensive Police Fees Shut Down Oakland Community Events

Preserving the Plant was set to debut this July as the first cannabis fair of its kind in Oakland. Event organizer Edward Brown, an advocate for making the cannabis industry equitable for Black and brown communities harmed by the War on Drugs, worked for two years to ensure his vendor market and festival would have the proper permits, insurance, security and COVID protocols to make it a success.

Greg Minor, head of Oakland’s Special Activity Permit Division, had been in communication with Brown throughout the planning process. But Minor didn’t forewarn him that he’d owe the Oakland Police Department money for security fees, Brown says. Three nights before Preserving the Plant was supposed to take place on July 24, Brown recalls getting a surprise email at around 11pm stating that he’d have to pay OPD $6,634 to get his permit.

“There was no way we [could have] come up with that money without somebody taking out a loan,” says Brown. He postponed the event to later this fall because of the high OPD fee; COVID concerns also played a role. “It was extremely frustrating. It felt like we were sabotaged. I followed every single rule that the city asked me to, and the state as well, being compliant and turning in things [on time].”

Now, Brown has joined dozens of event presenters calling on the city of Oakland to change its special events policy to eliminate some of these high costs and bureaucratic hurdles. In 2020, the city council unanimously approved a resolution to put the city administrator’s office in charge of special event permits and hiring security instead of police. But city staff, who say they were waylaid by the more pressing needs of the pandemic, still haven’t changed the policy.

Critics of the current policy are frustrated: In the years prior to the pandemic, Oakland used as much as 84% of its festivals and fairs fund to pay the police department for security instead of directly supporting artists and cultural institutions. This police-led permitting system is cost-prohibitive and inequitable, critics say. They argue it hurts opportunities for artists and small businesses, hampers Oakland’s tourism industry and slows recovery from pandemic restrictions. Now, government leaders, artists and promoters alike are calling for a more transparent, affordable system for throwing festivals, fairs and block parties, all of which are vital for the city’s culture, economy and community relationships.

Preserving the Plant isn’t the only recent event organizers canceled because of high OPD fees. Oakland’s First Fridays art walk had to skip its entire summer season because OPD wanted to charge presenters $24,000 per event.

“It’s just disappointing,” says First Friday organizer Shari Godinez, who serves as the executive director of neighborhood merchants association Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District. “If the city does want to support the arts and culture and revitalizing business in the city, they would support First Friday.”

First Fridays are a big economic driver for Oakland. The street fair typically draws tens of thousands of attendees and boosts revenues in the area by as much as 250%, Godinez says. After its cancellation generated media attention and public outcry, event organizers were able to secure a comeback date in October. Godinez says she met with Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, and Armstrong agreed to reduce OPD’s security fees to around $10,000. With the help of City Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, Godinez found a corporate sponsor, DoorDash, to cover the cost for October.

But this isn’t a sustainable strategy for the long term, nor is it an accessible pathway for less-established event organizers with no connections in city government. “We can’t take that expense on every month, it just isn’t feasible,” Godinez says.

Festival-goers attend First Friday in January 2020. (Oakland First Fridays/Alicia Rodriguez)

A Dysfunctional System Shuts Down Community Events

Event presenters and city officials have long argued that Oakland’s current system for special events isn’t working. The Oakland Police Department decides how many officers to send to an event and sets its own price for security fees. It’s impossible for a festival organizer to obtain a permit without paying whatever amount OPD determines, sometimes with only a day’s notice. That means the costs to presenters can seem arbitrary and unpredictable, ranging anywhere from hundreds of dollars to the $24,000 initially required of First Fridays.

Many Oakland street fairs and block parties are free to the public and don’t have major corporate sponsors, so surprise fees can force organizers to cancel their events or make difficult decisions, such as not paying performers or taking on debt. Short of reaching out to city councilmembers to intervene, there’s no formal process for appealing OPD’s decisions.

For Brown, postponing Preserving the Plant meant losing hundreds of dollars on top of dealing with complicated logistics. “We had to pay off the band,” says Brown, adding that he had to find a new headliner because the original act couldn’t reschedule.

OPD has no publicly available policy that explains how security fees are determined, and did not return KQED’s request for comment.

“In order to not reduce resources needed to respond to critical public safety services (i.e., 911 calls, Ceasefire, violent crimes, etc.), these events are staffed with police officers working overtime,” explains Harry Hamilton of Oakland’s Economic & Workforce Development Department.

But critics say therein lies the problem. “We are wasting very expensive police officers on duties that have nothing to do with fighting guns or fighting violent crime,” says Councilmember Kaplan, who proposed a 2020 resolution to transfer special events permits from OPD to city staff.

Under the current system, officers are tasked with processing paperwork and directing traffic in addition to doing security. “And we are tripling the costs of community events for no benefit,” Kaplan adds.

Kaplan says police fees almost forced the city to shut down a voting site at the Oakland Coliseum during the November 2020 election. “It came within minutes of not happening because the Oakland Police Department was trying to shake them down for many, many tens of thousands of dollars under the theory that this was a special event,” she says, adding that OPD reduced costs after some “high-level people intervened.”

For years, civil rights advocates, artists and event promoters have accused the Oakland Police Department of deploying its special events policy in racist ways, ramping up costs for events with Black artists and audiences. In 2017, an East Bay Express report described a pattern of OPD using security fees to effectively shut down rap concerts. “OPD knows they’re infringing on these artists’ right to perform,” San Francisco attorney John Hamasaki alleged at the time.

Kaplan says that pattern has persisted, and that organizers have complained OPD is abusing the system. “There have been complaints that it’s been disproportionately used against Black community events,” she says. “And I think there’s a lot of history that supports that claim. … The system is inherently a setup for failure.”

Funding Earmarked for Arts Goes to Police

While Oakland budgets money in each fiscal year to support the arts, most of its festivals and fairs fund ends up going to the police department instead of artists or cultural organizations, city data shows.

A breakdown of Oakland’s festivals and fairs fund, which the Economic & Workforce Development Department provided to KQED, reveals that 84% of the fund went towards covering OPD fees in fiscal year 2017. That figure was 76.1% for fiscal year 2018 and 72.5% in fiscal year 2019.

Meanwhile, at the latest Cultural Affairs Commission meeting in July, the organizers of the 11 festivals the fund supports described working with shoestring budgets that left them unable to pay performers in some cases. “We can’t fund a payment for them because we’ve just got so many other costs,” Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, organizer of the 40th Street Block Party in Temescal, said at the meeting. She added that for the past four years $2,000 of her $5,000 event budget has gone to OPD and fire department costs. “It limits our ability to have a diversity of programing and really support our artists in the city of Oakland.”

Oakland’s hotel tax typically subsidizes some of the city’s festivals and fairs. But that fund was used to cover other budget shortfalls during the pandemic, which is why the organizers of First Fridays and other events are now responsible for paying Oakland police out of pocket. But even if that fund were flush with cash, critics say the money should be going to artists instead of police.

“It’s a problem because it’s not the intended use of the fund,” says Kaplan. “We need to be supporting our cultural institutions and our artists and these communities that have been incredibly hard hit and are struggling.”

Event-goers gather in Oakland’s Liberation Park, part of the city’s Black Cultural Zone, for Outdoor Play Day + The Town Experience Community Photo Shoot in February 2021. Charlese Banks, founder of The Town Experience, says events like these are vital for Oakland’s community and tourism industry. (Courtesy of The Town Experience)

What’s more, leaders in Oakland’s tourism industry worry that it will be more difficult to replenish Oakland’s hotel tax fund without the attractions that bring people to the city in the first place. “The idea is we get people to fly into Oakland, stay in Oakland. But what are the experiences you give them once they’re here?” asks Charlese Banks of The Town Experience, a marketing firm that promotes Oakland as a “vibrant travel destination.”

“Those are very important to their overall stay,” she says. “It’s not just about putting heads in the beds.”

A New Policy Could Help Future Festivals and Parties

In 2020, the Oakland city council unanimously approved Kaplan’s plan to put the city administration in charge of permits instead of OPD. As outlined in the resolution, deploying city staffers and hired security guards for event duties would be significantly cheaper than having police work overtime.

But the Special Activity Permit Division hasn’t yet implemented this policy, over a year later. Hamilton says that’s because the city council didn’t originally set aside money for the resolution, so there wasn’t enough staffing to implement changes. Oakland’s new budget for fiscal years 2021–2023 provides funding for one new position, which still hasn’t been filled, to support a revised special events process.

“During the last year when gatherings were prohibited by local and state public health orders implemented during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, city staff focused its limited resources on COVID-19 responses,” Hamilton explains via email, “such as the Flex Streets Initiative to help restaurants and retailers operate outdoors in the public rights-of-way, thereby preventing business closures and keeping workers employed, and the Lake Merritt Vending program to support vendors impacted by the pandemic.”

Kaplan, on the other hand, doesn’t accept this justification for the delay. “The notion that there wasn’t enough money to do the transfer is frankly insulting,” she says. “First of all, this was the direction to the administrator: to work on it and come back to the council if he needed a new budget allocation. There’s been 20 different opportunities to ask for that at numerous budget hearings. … I think it just reflects a lack of desire to do it.”

Currently, a task force of interdepartmental city staff is meeting to come up with a new, more streamlined process for special events, and hopes to present it to the city council in October. “One basic concept we’re hoping to implement is a little bit more transparency on the security requirements just so that there’s consistency,” Minor of the Special Activity Permit Division said at the Cultural Affairs Commission meeting in July, where dozens of event organizers spoke out in favor of the change.

It’s unclear whether the final plan will resemble Kaplan and the city council’s original vision; police security fees may still be a factor going forward. “Since the new permitting process is still being developed, the precise roles of each City department (including OPD) has not yet been determined,” Hamilton writes.

For Godinez’ part, she doesn’t mind working with OPD. She just doesn’t think First Fridays and other events should have to pay for it. “We’ve never asked them to reduce the [number of] officers,” she says, adding that she has also reached out to the civilian-led Department of Violence Prevention to support October’s event. “We’ve always asked them to do what they think will keep this event safe.”

The city task force anticipates presenting its new plan for special events later this fall. But until then, event organizers are left to deal with a confusing, expensive process for the rest of the season.

“It’s just unfair,” says Brown of Preserving the Plant. “I think that the city of Oakland can waive the fees. They could have had me pay them later, you know, bill me next year or, ‘OK, you’re doing this for cannabis equity. Well then let’s just figure out a way to wipe the slate.’ Something clever and impactful, because this what you created the equity program for.”

Copyright 2021 KQED