“How will you ensure this task force doesn’t just publish another report that gathers dust on the shelf?”

I regularly encountered this sort of skepticism when I served as the executive director of San Francisco’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement, a task force that conducted an investigation of institutionalized bias within the San Francisco Police Department in 2015-16. While that effort led to some important wins — like a dramatically improved use-of-force policy, an independent bureau to investigate police misconduct, and the foundation of the No Justice, No Deal campaign shining a light on the San Francisco police union’s abuse of power — many of the task force’s common-sense recommendations are indeed gathering dust.

The task force’s lack of traction was primarily due to the inherent and unyielding barriers to police reform. But its mixed results also raise the question: are task forces on public safety worth the effort? 

The question of whether task forces can be impactful weighed on PolicyLink’s decision to co-facilitate Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. Oakland is a progressive and diverse city with a storied legacy and ongoing history of Black-led radical activism. But even here, shifting funding away from policing to invest in non-carceral responses, programs, and services would be a monumental task. We knew that transformative change would never happen entirely through a task force — at best, it could be a catalyst or support for deeper movement work. But a well-facilitated task force with an unimpeachable process could result in tangible policy change that improved the lives of Oakland residents.

Many organizers across the country are now confronting this same question in the wake of the 2020 uprisings, which highlighted the inefficiency and injustice of continuing to pour billions of dollars into policing rather than investing in basic infrastructure, economic security, and social programs — all of which would more effectively increase public safety. Many cities have responded to these demands by establishing task forces to “reimagine public safety.” These task forces are typically made up of civilian volunteers with relevant content expertise and/or lived experience who are empowered by a government body to develop recommendations regarding policing and public safety. 

Such task forces have the potential to accelerate movement demands if they can avoid succumbing to common pitfalls. When determining whether to demand or support a task force on reimagining public safety, organizers should assess answers to the foundational questions listed below. For a task force to be impactful, the answer to each of these questions would have to be “yes”:

  1. Do task force members have a shared understanding of and commitment to a clearly-articulated goal? 

  2. Does the task force have enough authority, access, capacity, and time to accomplish its goal?

  3. Does the task force have the buy-in of a government actor with sufficient power and authority to adopt and implement its recommendations?

Without these foundational elements, any task force risks becoming a costly distraction, a token endeavor intended to appease constituents but doomed by design to fail. 

In Oakland, the answer to these threshold questions was predominantly “yes.” The unanimously-approved City Council resolution that created the task force provided a north star to keep Task Force and Advisory Board members on track and hold them accountable to an explicitly-articulated purpose. The resolution also provided guardrails for facilitation toward an achievable result on a challenging timeline. Assessing whether to divest from the police department and invest in community, for example, was outside the scope of the Task Force’s purview. Further, the Defund OPD coalition, led by the Anti Police-Terror Project, was a well-established community force that helped establish the task force, participated in its structure, and showed up to public hearings, putting sufficient pressure on electeds to support the task force and its recommendations.

Ultimately, although the Oakland Task Force fell short of its aspirational “50% reduction in the Oakland Police Department General Purpose Fund (GFP) budget allocation,” we made important progress toward divesting from policing, investing in alternatives to police, and addressing the root causes of harm and violence. In its next budget, Oakland’s general fund allocation to the police department will decrease by two percent (though the overall dollar amount will increase by $9 million) and approximately $25 million will be invested in violence prevention programs as well as in MACRO, a new, non-police crisis response program. Oakland’s City Council also directed its city administrator to take tangible steps to implement additional task force recommendations, ensuring the city will continue the work of increasing public safety by shrinking the size and scope of policing, supporting the development of community-led programs that respond to harm, and investing in addressing the root causes of harm and violence.

Given that the institution of policing holds so much power and the barriers to shifting the paradigm about safety are so numerous, Oakland’s outcomes should be celebrated as an important step toward a more transformative result. 

Here are some lessons from our experience in Oakland that may help organizers develop more effective task forces. 

  1. Select a trusted, values-aligned facilitator with a diverse skill set.

To successfully facilitate a “reimagining public safety” task force, facilitators must be values-aligned and possess a diverse set of skills (either individually or aggregated as part of a team), including project design and management, meeting design and facilitation, trauma-informed interpersonal skills, and demonstrated expertise on the current criminal-legal system and transformative frameworks. Facilitators must also be transparent, communicative, credible, organized, patient, and strategic. 

Where possible, advocate for a local facilitator who is trusted by advocates and policymakers (if you need suggestions, go to https://defundpolice.org and use the chat function). Too often, facilitators are selected on the basis of technical expertise in policing and/or other aspects of the criminal-legal system, qualities that may inhibit the creativity and openness needed to envision a new public safety infrastructure and actually indicate misalignment with transformative goals. Trust between PolicyLink and local community partners had been built over years of strategic collaboration and advocacy on various campaigns related to shifting the paradigm away from policing toward more transformative, community-based approaches at local, state, and federal levels. PolicyLink accepted the co-facilitator role at the urging of these community partners and at the invitation of an elected official who had a demonstrated record of centering and serving BIPOC communities in Oakland. This foundation of trust ensured alignment toward a shared goal. 

While political value alignment is critical, facilitators must also remain objective in service of the stated task force goal; this means facilitators should be impassive, work to consider all perspectives (while centering those of the most impacted), and step back in service of amplifying task force member and community voices, all while ensuring a narrow focus on achieving the goal, typically in the face of massive and intense opposition.

  1. Maximize influence over task force structure, design, and membership

It’s critical to ensure that task force member candidates are vetted for alignment with goals. In Oakland, elected officials and various boards and commissions selected the Task Force’s 17 designated members without this fundamental step. Although a majority of members ended up being aligned with the stated goal, the margin was thin and members who opposed the goal regularly detracted from the process, leading to tension, frustration, and mistrust on both sides.

In addition to its 17 members, Oakland’s task force had five advisory boards with close to 200 resident volunteers: (1) Alternative Responses, Programs, and Investments; (2) Legal and Policy Barriers and Opportunities; (3) Budget and Data Analysis; (4) Oakland Police Department Organization and Culture; and (5) a Youth Advisory Board. Although the work of these boards was exemplary and should be lauded, the Alternative Responses, Programs, and Investments board held the overwhelming responsibility of developing recommendations that aligned with the stated goal of the task force. Getting input from community organizers on the front end could have ensured that the structure of the task force supported its goals. Community input did lead to one successful restructuring after the Task Force launch: at the urging of youth organizers, we formed a Youth Advisory Board, which succeeded at collecting and presenting inspiring and actionable perspectives. But the purviews of the other advisory boards could have been more efficiently handled by consultants and the City Administrator (with City Council guidance).

  1. Ensure sufficient capacity. 

Oakland employed a co-facilitation model, which helpfully divided the massive workload but also presented a set of challenges, including a lack of clarity about roles and authority and a cumbersome and imperfect information sharing and alignment process. While the Oakland co-facilitators were able to navigate these challenges, the process may have been more efficient and effective with a sufficiently-resourced single facilitator, allowing for Task Force members and other participants to have a clear point of contact and accountability.

Aside from facilitation capacity, volunteer Task Force and Advisory Board members were responsible for developing a wide set of recommendations for City Council consideration on a short timeframe. This was a challenging task, especially for a diverse set of volunteers whose expertise ranged from professional to none. Thanks to their determination and sacrifice, these volunteers developed a comprehensive set of well-researched, robust recommendations — 88 of which were later approved by the Task Force and accepted by City Council — but advocates in other locations should attempt to ensure that capacity is sufficient to achieve the task force goal before endorsing the effort. This may require compensation or other resources for volunteers.

  1. Consider a phased approach.

Oakland’s task force had a mere six months to achieve the daunting task of reimagining public safety, an aggressive timeline that ensured that recommendations could be considered by City Council before it approved a new two-year budget. While this goal was important, visioning and detailing an entirely new public safety system while trying to navigate legal and policy barriers on their own timelines (e.g., police union contracts) was an impossible task. One recommendation calls for a second phase of the Task Force to continue developing and refining the work; while there is optimism that this will manifest, building in various multi-year phases on the front end would have better acknowledged the weight of the task and allowed for a more focused effort over the initial six-month period.

While the Oakland Task Force led to important outcomes, powerful interests keen on protecting the status quo were quick to denounce the effort with misleading characterizations about the role of police in the midst of increased community violence. This knee-jerk reaction from opponents exemplifies the challenging work that is still ahead. Advocates for a transformed public safety paradigm must envision, design, and build a new system with limited public resources. We must shift hearts and minds away from a deep-seated narrative that conflates safety with policing while contending with misinformation, hostility, and increasing trauma, violence, and economic insecurity. This is movement work. A task force can help catalyze or accelerate progress, but only if it is treated and resourced as a tactic within a broader community-led strategy. 

This article was adapted from Appendix A of Navigating Public Safety Task Forces: A Guide From The Ground, published in August 2021


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