Illegal dumping calls skyrocket by 129%, Oakland poised to spend nearly $500,000 on litter police

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Trash illegally dumped onto the the streets of Oakland is among the city’s biggest challenges, leaders say, and so combat that, the Department of Public Works is proposing to spend nearly $500,000 on litter police, bringing back a program that was disbanded about eight years ago.

“Many community organizations have made illegal dumping their top priority in 2018,” Public Works Director Jason Mitchell wrote to the committee, recommending that the council will eventually finance the proposal. “Illegal dumping inflicts a grave economic and environmental injustice on Oakland residents.”

The messy problem is so bad, the city noted that calls for help regarding illegal dumping has skyrocketed by 129 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to Mitchell’s report.

But while many community advocates like the fact that Oakland leaders are paying attention to their overlooked and overstrewn neighborhoods, they also wonder if having extra enforcement is the answer: The better option, some contend, would be having a free place to dump their old mattresses, furniture and waste, instead of having to pay hefty fees and drive the garbage all the way to the Waste Management center in San Leandro.

Shaniece Alexander, executive director of the Food Policy Council, told Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in an open letter that she fears these officers and this tactic will unfairly harm people of color with aggressive policing.

Instead, she suggested increasing the number of bulk pickup days and invest in more public Dumpsters, as two ideas that would help clean up the streets without harming those who are already on the bottom economic rung.

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Emma Paulino, 62, a community organizer with Oakland Community Organizations, was someone who also complained to Schaaf along with several other residents last month and urged the mayor to hire the enforcement officers. She said she heartened by this move, but added she thinks the city could do more.

“We can do better,” she said. “This is a step forward but it doesn’t satisfy us.”

She said she and grassroots groups who comprise the East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods demanded not only litter police, but better lighting in chronic dumping areas, a proactive zone-based cleanup system formed by hotspots, and one new public works crew focused on illegal dumping.

She said she also doesn’t want the new officers to target and criminalize the homeless. “We want them to go after companies.”

In his report, Mitchell outlines that the Litter Enforcement Officers, or LEOs, will be non-sworn employees; they are not police officers, do not carry a weapon and do make arrest people. He explained that they will wear uniforms like parking enforcement officers, and will be are responsible for education the public and enforcing codes. They will also be involved in “forensic investigation.” Schaaf described them as “trash detectives,” though how exactly they will do their work has yet to be publicly explained.

Oakland used to have eight litter enforcement officers, one public service representative and a supervisor who worked in six areas and worked to curb blight. But this program was eliminated in 2010 because of budget cuts. Illegal dumping increased as a result, Mitchell wrote. 

He also said that spending the money on proactive enforcement is needed. If city resources are only directed to the removal of illegally dumped material, Mitchell wrote, “people may become conditioned to think that their debris will be removed by city staff at no cost to them, thus perpetuating the problem rather than solving it."

He proposed that $36,780 be spent for the rest of this year, and then $452, 420 be spent in 2018-19 on the three officers, which would come out of a $3.4-million Comprehensive Cleanup Fund. Of that, $100,000 will go for maintenance, overtime, supplies and fuel. 

Justin Berton, the mayor's spokesman, said Schaaf is going to propose hiring an additional crew dedicated to illegal dumping and $250,000 for a public education/marketing campaign. Altogether, he said, the city could invest $1.1 million in illegal dumping.

The Department of Public Works also said that revenue for this program can come from litter fines. When the program was running before, litter officers generated up to $70,000 a year. During the last reporting period, only $16,000 was generated in fines.

The Public Works Committee meets on May 22.