.Oakland’s Measure Y Is a Bad Law

A recent court case proves the 2004 measure that resulted in 63 "community policing" officers should be tossed.

Measure Y was supposed to make Oakland safer. When voters
overwhelmingly approved the plan in 2004 to add 63 cops and finance an
array of feel-good programs, crime was on the rise. But in the years
after the parcel tax measure passed, crime spiraled out of control.
What happened? Some supporters of Measure Y blame the Oakland Police
Department for taking too long implement it. But a recent court case
reveals that the measure likely never would have impacted violent
crime. It was a badly written law and a waste of money that should be

In fact, Measure Y now could cost the city dearly. In the coming
days, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch is
expected to rule that the police misspent Measure Y funds, a decision
that could cost the city more than $9 million. Roesch’s expected ruling
stems from a lawsuit filed by Oakland attorney and political gadfly
Marleen Sacks, who has pushed for a strict interpretation of
Measure Y, arguing that the city should be penalized for its flawed
implementation of it. A closer look at both Roesch and Sacks’ reasoning
reveals yet another instance of apparently well-meaning people not
seeing the forest for the trees.

First, a bit of background. The Oakland Police Department has been
severely understaffed for as long as anyone can remember. But putting
more cops on the streets has never been popular with many progressive
residents. So in 2004, city leaders hammered out a compromise tax
measure that combined the hiring of police officers, who would be
assigned to “community policing” duties, with a host of
violence-prevention programs. Measure Y, which needed a two-thirds vote
to become law, won easily with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

The measure called for the police department to “hire and maintain”
63 additional police officers, bringing the city’s total authorized
force to 802. Fifty-seven of the new cops were to become
“problem-solving officers,” a specialized group that would act as
liaisons with community leaders across the city, dealing with
quality-of-life issues such as drugs, prostitution, graffiti, and
vandalism. Backers of the measure expected the police department to
immediately begin hiring cops. But that wasn’t realistic.

As Deputy Police Chief David Kozicki noted in testimony in
Sacks’ lawsuit, department rules do not allow new officers to be
assigned to problem-solving positions as envisioned by Measure Y. The
reason was simple. Rookie cops need extensive on-the-job training
before they’re ready to tackle difficult assignments. It also makes no
sense to have rookies become the face of community policing. As a
result, longstanding department policy required that new cops spend
their first three years working patrol, responding to 911 calls, and
learning how to become effective officers. “Newly sworn officers are
not ready for specialized assignments, including community-policing
assignments,” City Attorney John Russo stated in court

There’s no dispute that police brass failed to fully explain this to
Oakland voters before Measure Y became law. Nor was it widely
understood that the police department planned to put veterans from the
patrol division into the problem-solving positions and then hire
rookies to backfill their spots. The department, first under Chief
Richard Word, and then Chief Wayne Tucker, also quietly
decided to use Measure Y funds to pay for the hiring and training of
the rookies. They reasoned that they could not fulfill the dictates of
Measure Y and have enough officers patrolling Oakland streets unless
they could hire new cops to replace the officers promoted. They also
knew that the city couldn’t afford to raid its already depleted general
fund to pay for the new cops.

It was a logical conclusion. After all, Measure Y clearly allows the
department to hire and train rookies for problem-solving positions. So
why not use the funds to pay for rookies who would take the spots
vacated by veteran officers assigned to Measure Y jobs? That way, both
the needs of Measure Y and the patrol division could be met.

But from Sacks’ perspective, the department acted illegally. In her
lawsuit, she argued for a strict reading of Measure Y, contending that
its funds could only be used to hire and pay for the 63 community
policing officers outlined in the measure — and not for any other
cops. “The city … had a clear, ministerial duty not to expend Measure
Y funds to recruit and train brand new police officers,” she stated in
court papers.

According to court documents filed by Russo, the police department
has used $9.3 million of Measure Y funds to hire and train rookies to
replace patrol veterans who became problem-solving officers. At a
minimum, Sacks wants the city’s general fund, which is already facing
an estimated $50 million deficit next year, to refund all of that money
back to the Measure Y account. Based on tentative ruling Roesch issued
last week, it appears that the judge is going to agree with her. Roesch
is expected to issue his final decision soon.

For his part, Russo deserves credit for arguing for a more liberal
interpretation of the law. He contends that Measure Y’s language is
purposely vague, and that using funds to recruit and train rookies who
replace veterans promoted to problem-solving positions fits within the
definition of hiring and maintaining. He also has noted that if
Roesch rules in Sacks’ favor, it could result in an absurd outcome. The
police department may be forced to transfer rookies into
problem-solving positions in order to not harm the city’s general

There’s no doubt that police department brass should have done a
better job explaining its plans for Measure Y before voters approved
it. There’s also no doubt that the department took a long time to
fulfill the measure’s requirement of adding 63 community policing
officers, including 57 problem solvers and six other officers who work
in “crime reduction teams.” In fact, the department just recently met
this mandate, four years after Measure Y became law.

In his deposition, Kozicki explained that the department was
hampered by an unexpectedly high drop-out rate in its police academies
over the past several years and by larger than expected number of
disability retirements. As a result, the department decided that it was
better to leave the Measure Y problem-solving positions open than to
have the patrol division be understaffed.

Kozicki’s argument is convincing. But it also points to the
shortcomings of Measure Y. In fact, the whole concept of “community
policing” envisioned by the measure is wrongheaded — and police
brass deserves credit for making it a low priority. Under Measure Y,
every one of the city’s 57 police beats gets its own problem-solving
officer, regardless of how many actual crime problems an individual
beat has. Consequently, some of the toughest neighborhoods of East and
West Oakland get the same number of problem-solving cops as Montclair
and Rockridge.

That’s a ridiculous waste of taxpayer funds, and it’s a stupid way
to run a police department. There is no good reason for why each
section of the Oakland hills needs its own veteran officer, especially
when violent crime has left entire swaths of the city’s flatlands under
siege. It’s also absurd to deploy experienced cops in relatively safe
neighborhoods when the city’s police department can’t solve violent
crimes. As this newspaper has noted, Oakland has the worst record for
solving violent crimes, particularly murder cases, of any large city in
California (see “Arrests Are Down, and Crime Is Up,” 12/3/08).

As for Sacks’ arguments, they may be technically correct under a
narrow reading of the law, but they’re not good for Oakland. Her suit
either will worsen the city’s already dire financial problems or force
inexperienced cops into jobs they’re not ready to handle. Moreover, her
suit ignores the fact that the goal of Measure Y has now been
fulfilled. Every little section of the city now has its own
problem-solving officer — whether it actually needs them or not.

As for Roesch’s final decision, it doesn’t really matter whether he
sides with Sacks or Russo. Either way, Measure Y should be rewritten
and put back in front of voters. Even if the judge agrees with Russo
and dismisses Sacks’ lawsuit, we’re still stuck with a
community-policing plan that benefits the wealthy at the expense of
those who have to cope with the ravages of crime every day.

When it comes down to it, Measure Y is just another example of how
not to legislate from the ballot box. Liberals and progressives in this
city simply have to get over their hang-ups about police. Cops are not
the bad guys; we desperately need more of them. At the same time, those
well-meaning busy bodies in the hills who have too much time on their
hands have to come to grips with the fact that their city can’t afford
to give them their own personal “problem solvers” when the rest of
Oakland is on fire.

What this city really needs is a new tax measure to replace Measure
Y. This time, it should pay for the 63 officers — or preferably
more — with no strings attached. Let’s let the police department
experts decide how to deploy them. Hopefully, they’ll transfer those
problem-solving officers out of the hills and into the woefully
understaffed crime investigation unit. But if they don’t and violent
crime remains high, then the answer is to demand that they be replaced
— not pass another badly written law.


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