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Politics & Policy

Oakland replaces police with unarmed civilians to clear unauthorized vehicles

Oakland replaced police in March 2023 with unit of unarmed civilians to manage removal of unauthorized vehicles on city streets. | Courtesy Oakland Department of Transportation

Unarmed civilians instead of police will be removing unauthorized vehicles from Oakland streets following the launch this month of a unit in the city’s Department of Transportation.

Sixteen people make up the vehicle enforcement unit, including 13 technicians and one supervisor. 

The unit will focus on three areas—abandoned autos, vehicle encampments and autos subject to booting.

The effort will free up 13 police officers for other work and reduce the time residents wait for unauthorized vehicles to be removed from curbs. It was taking up to 120 days for police.

“Oaklanders deserve the highest levels of customer service from their local government, and they also demand we deliver that service through a lens of justice and holistic community safety,” Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said in a statement. “This important, groundbreaking effort does exactly that.”

The launch of the unit comes following the city’s effort to reimagine public safety and nearly 18 months of planning and preparation at a time of continued violence in Oakland.

Some residents argue that police should focus on reducing violence rather than other calls like certain mental health crises.

Oakland now has a unit in the fire department to handle nonviolent mental health crises.

“There’s no reason why we need armed officers to deal with abandoned vehicles,” said James Burch, deputy director of the Anti Police-Terror Project, which advocates for an end to police violence in communities of color.

“It has been a complete waste of the people’s money,” Burch said, while alleging Oakland police have “lied about being understaffed and underfunded. This commonsense move will save money and make us all safer.”

Six technicians make up the abandoned auto detail while three will handle vehicle encampments and four will handle vehicles subject to booting.

Deputy City Administrator Joe DeVries said that the unit’s north star will be reducing the time it takes to remove inoperable vehicles from curbs.

“Those are our highest priority,” DeVries said in a phone interview Thursday.

He added that once the city reduces the backlog of requests for removals, city officials may start a campaign to educate rather than cite residents whose vehicle is left in the same place on the street for more than 72 hours.

The campaign may consist of sending letters to remind residents who may be forgetting California’s 72-hour law and leaving their vehicle in one place for longer than that.

Vehicles that are not moved regularly and are used as shelter are vehicle encampments. Three people in the new unit will work with the city’s encampment management team to clear those encampments.

DeVries said homelessness in the city is tragic and the city cannot tow a vehicle someone is living in unless the occupant is offered shelter. The encampment management policy says the city must lead with services, DeVries said.

With the new vehicle enforcement unit, the city will have twice as many vans to tend to scofflaw vehicles, which are those subject to booting.

Vehicles subject to booting are those with five or more unpaid citations or those with more than $500 in unpaid fines or fees.

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