An Associated Press story about the cost of police overtime in relation to suppressing the Occupy movements has been making the rounds this past week, and has influenced punditry and populace alike. Not surprisingly, Oakland is singled out in the story along with New York city where the respective police forces have been known also for spectacular brutality which has hospitalized several protesters—at least two with life threatening injuries in Oakland.
All reporting has a frame. The mainstream frame is constructed of data points provided by privileged sources aligned with the establishment. Those data points are reported diligently by media without fact-checking or research. In Oakland’s case, this is why vague assertions by the Chamber of Commerce that large scale business has pulled out of occupying space in downtown Oakland due to the Occupy protests is parroted diligently by media as fact, without any kind of fact-checking. And why privileged voices seeking to reinforce this narrative feel perfectly comfortable now attributing this statement as a fact, since it appeared in media reports.
This is why Mayor Quan’s assertion of violence and sexual assault in the plaza during subsequent occupations has achieved the status of researched fact; it has appeared in the media. This is why a police press release that claims that both shooter and victim in the murder that occurred in the plaza last month were residents of the camp entered the narrative no questions asked.
Of course, it’s a constant battle to contest these “facts”, to insist that evidence be provided when they are posed. As problematic as accepting the primacy of those data points, however, its even worse to consider the frame as a useful construct that informs the public on crucial issues. In this case, if our concern is police over time, then there are more fruitful places to place that frame then the overtime generated during occupy protests.
For example, the Oakland Police Department has been for years—and still is—a massive black hole of over time requests. In 2007, the OPD spent 26 million on overtime. There were no “crises” created by the need to violently and decisively crush the popular right to freedom of expression in that year—that was just business as usual. Its just another example of the OPD and the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, gaming the system for the benefit of its elite of police officials who often constitute the highest paid city employees. The over-time costs generated in 2007 alone represent half of the current budget deficit.
This year, after years of humiliating exposes and pressure from various city agencies, the OPD has managed to cut its overtime expenditures in half, to a projected thirteen million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Even if this 3 million is added to the cash pile of largesse, just where did the other ten million dollars of over time come from? No one seems to care about that in the media.
But that’s not the end of it. As a KTVU reported last month, Oakland is the number one payer of police abuses lawsuits in the bay area at the tune of $58 million. Think about that. San Jose has over double the population and spent only 8 million. San Francisco with double the population spent half that amount. Ironically, the city budget deficit is 57 million dollars.
It would not be hard to argue that over-time expense and lawsuits alone bankrupted the city. The last month has given us a slow-motion view of how these heinously high pay-outs were generated. First, a culture of violence and abuse, specific to Oakland’s police, generates the lawsuits. Considering only the case of Scott Olsen, one can only wonder how much Oakland tax payers will have to pay for the suffering he experienced at police hands. Then add a culture of misplaced priorities, where crime prevention and public safety take second place to free speech stifling errands from the mayor’s office.
While a murder of eight people yesterday remains unsolved, 8 police officers spent their day preventing the erection of a tent—arguably a speech and religious freedom act protected by the constitution. When police physically prevented activists from establishing their protest vigil at Oscar Grant Plaza, a teepee symbolizing struggles of both indigenous people and campers such as the Bonus Marchers, they spent money and resources to prevent a constitutionally allowed, peaceful demonstration. They then also moved to tear down the Interfaith tent adjacent to it. When I asked police who were taking the tee pee poles out of Running Wolf’s hands each time he tried to set them up, what city ordinance or code they were referencing, he was very honest: “I don’t know the code”. His exact words.
In a city with 109 murders where mass murderers remain on the loose, that’s what police downtown were spending the taxpayer’s money on–to enforce laws that were product of their own guesswork. This is a police department that regularly follows procedures invented on the spot by its officers, with varying outcomes of brutality and violations of human rights. The results are invariably lawsuits, such as this one where police illegally strip-searched law-abiding young African Americans using a city code that was a product of their own brutal imagination.
When we move our admittedly institutional frame to ask questions about costs to city taxpayers from police actions, lets talk about where the majority of that money went first: lawsuits generated by violence and ignorance of the law; and extortionary overtime procedures which have only recently seen any kind of attempt at control from the city. Then we can move on to extra three million spent to prevent the exercise of freedom of speech.