Over the past few years, the Express has published several reports noting that OPD has repeatedly failed to emphasize basic investigative police work, and that it has one of the worst records in the nation when it comes to solving crime. And while these problems persist, it’s also clear that OPD is severely understaffed. A force of six hundred or so police officers is simply not large enough for a city with so much violent crime.
As of earlier this week, Oakland had already recorded six homicides for 2013 — the result of a gang war that Police Chief Howard Jordan said has been responsible for much of the violent crime that has rocked the city in recent months. The latest crime wave also has made it clear that the council should approve two proposals from Jordan that are designed to improve OPD’s crime-fighting and investigative capabilities. Although the proposals will cost about $1.3 million and have been opposed by the Oakland police union, they represent important first steps for a department that faces so much violence.
The first proposal calls for allowing OPD to hire twenty non-sworn police service technicians and one fingerprint expert in order to free up police officers to do more crime-fighting and investigative work. The police union has long fought against such ideas, arguing that civilians should not be doing the work of sworn personnel. However, many of the desk jobs to be performed by the police techs, such as taking photos of suspects, do not need to be done by highly paid cops. In addition, the fingerprint expert will help OPD cope with its backlogged crime lab.
Civilian police techs also will save the city money in the long run. Recruiting, hiring, and training police officers is expensive — each police academy costs the cash-strapped city about $4.5 million. By contrast, Jordan estimates that hiring twenty techs and one fingerprint expert will cost $810,000 this year. “It’s a really positive step in terms of civilianizing the police department,” said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf. “These positions are also critical for investigations.”
The second proposal, co-sponsored by Schaaf and Vice Mayor Larry Reid, calls for contracting with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to have ten deputies patrol Oakland streets for at least ninety days — and possibly up to six months. The Oakland police union, which has a long history of rivalry with sheriff’s deputies, also has publicly objected to this proposal. The union has contended that the plan is just a Band-Aid for Oakland’s myriad problems. But that’s not a reason to reject it. OPD needs a short-term solution to its staffing problem — and contracting with the sheriff’s office will allow the department to put more cops on the streets until the city can complete its two police academies.
A third proposal from Jordan would delay a planned third academy until September. The academy, which is designed to produce 55 new cops, was originally supposed to start in June, but it was delayed in part because OPD doesn’t have enough training officers to deal with the new rookies. The academy also was postponed over concerns that the state may force the city to hand over millions of dollars in redevelopment funds. However, despite this issue, it makes no sense for the council to delay this third academy past September because OPD is losing about four officers a month to retirement and to transfers to other police departments.
Finally, Jordan also is proposing that the council allocate $250,000 to hire William Bratton, the former head of the New York and Los Angeles police departments, as a consultant, along with a team that includes former Hartford, Connecticut Police Chief Patrick Harnett. As we noted last week, there are many reasons to be wary of Bratton, but Harnett’s emphasis on crime-solving and the importance of investigative police work could be beneficial to OPD (see “The Good and Bad of William Bratton,” 1/9). In fact, if OPD had solid investigative intelligence on the warring criminal gangs in the city, it might have been able to prevent some of the recent bloodshed.
Although it’s clear that OPD is understaffed, we still believe that Oakland cannot afford to bring the police force back up to 800 officers like it had three years ago — or to the 925 cops that the department says it needs. Oakland’s economy has not sufficiently recovered enough to produce the tax revenues needed to pay for eight hundred officers. As a result, hiring two hundred more cops would force the city to devastate other city services, and force the widespread closure of parks and libraries.
Moreover, as we’ve noted before, Oakland actually spends as much money on its police force per capita as other cities with high-crime rates (see “It All Comes Down to the Unions,” 1/16/2011). Oakland has fewer officers than other cities, however, because OPD salaries and benefits are unsustainably high — much higher than those in comparable departments nationwide. As a result, the only way that the city can afford to staff up to 800 or 900 officers is if the police union agrees to allow Oakland to hire rookie cops at a substantially lower pay scale than the city currently uses. Although the union agreed to slightly lessen the pay of rookies when it signed its last contract in 2011, it wasn’t nearly enough to make an 800-cop police force affordable for Oakland.