Watch CBS News

New grant to fund expansion of Oakland's street ambassador program

Oakland's street ambassador program to expand thanks to new grant
Oakland's street ambassador program to expand thanks to new grant 03:34

Officials in Oakland on Wednesday announced a $3.5 million grant that will boost community safety programs, including the expansion of the city's ambassador program in areas experiencing high levels of crime.

At a press conference, Mayor Sheng Thao announced the grant and the partnership with Family Bridges that will add more ambassadors to downtown Oakland and Chinatown. 

"This funding will empower partners with long-standing relationships in the community to help people in non-emergency, non-medical crises in a compassionate and culturally appropriate manner," said Thao.  

The pilot program's overall goal is to reduce law enforcement and emergency responders having to answer calls reporting non-emergency and non-medical situations. 

Sakhone Lasaphangthong is recognized by many people due to his green community ambassador vest. He spends his time connecting with neighborhood residents as he patrols Oakland's Chinatown. 

He is one of seven community ambassadors now turned mediators, who are helping with overall street safety. Their roles include connecting individuals to housing resources, building community relationships, and de-escalating situations. 

Lasaphangthong told KPIX that the job gives him purpose. 

"I was incarcerated for 20 years, and I was released at the end of 2018," said Lasaphangthong. "I made a promise at my parole hearing that coming home, I would give back to the community."

The grant means there soon could be more people like him throughout the community. 

"For example, if a community member or business owner has an altercation or issue with a houseless person, that's when we are called in to de-escalate the situation and try to resolve the issue," said Lasaphangthong.

If a situation escalates to violence, Family Bridges says ambassadors then call emergency responders, because the incident would be out of their scope of care. However, ambassadors continue to try to de-escalate the situation until authorities arrive. 

Business owners like Chris Baker say having the ambassadors in the area has been helpful. 

"When you have a cleaner block and people giving you information about other crimes around, it just helps you and the community come together," said Baker. 

Lasaphangthong says the ambassadors want to help before the crisis begins. 

"I go in and check in and validate folks," said Lasaphangthong. "Just so they know that there is someone there for them consistently. Consistency is key right to building trust."  

A small group of protestors gathered in Latham Square where the event announcing the grant was held. Among the protesters were organizers of the recently launched effort to recall Mayor Thao.

Protestor Edward Escobar said he welcomes the additional ambassadors, but questioned the timing of the announcement.

"Ask yourself why she's doing this now after more than one year being in office," said Escobar. "It's because we're lighting a fire underneath her and she knows she has one foot out the door."

The recall campaign officially began its signature collection effort last Saturday. Some organizers behind the recall issued a statement Wednesday afternoon claiming that people involved with the protest were "surrounded, chased and violently attacked" by people they characterized as the mayor's private security team. 

Thao's office disputed the assertion she employs or uses any paid or volunteer private security and said police officers are present at her public events.

Her office also issued the following statement:

"At a press conference announcing the award of a $3.5 million public safety grant for the City of Oakland, Mayor Sheng Thao welcomed all present including those who attempted to disrupt this important community announcement. Oakland police officers were present at this event. At no point were these officers or any members of Mayor Thao's staff involved in any physical altercations with protestors. It should be noted that a member of the Mayor's staff was subject to bigoted anti-LGBTQ hate speech. Mayor Thao rejects hate speech and political violence and calls for all Oaklanders to work together for safer and more prosperous Oakland." 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.