Police work on TV is nothing like real life, at least not in Oakland. Over the past decade, some of the most popular TV shows — the CSI and NCIS franchises — have centered on whip-smart law enforcement investigators who dedicate their lives to solving crime and putting bad guys behind bars. Sure, the shows are fictitious, but it’s remarkable how starkly different they are from the reality of policing in the East Bay.
In Oakland, investigating and solving crime hasn’t been a priority for decades — and perhaps never was. In a memo last week to the Oakland City Council, Police Chief Sean Whent reported once again that OPD is failing to solve the vast majority of crimes in the city. But it’s worse than that. Oakland police detectives, Whent revealed, don’t even attempt to investigate most crimes — other than homicides and sexual assaults. The chief reported that in 2014, OPD did not investigate 80 percent of the reported robberies in the city. The department also chose not to investigate 97 percent of the burglaries in Oakland.
Over the years, numerous police chiefs have asserted that OPD can’t solve crimes because they say the department is woefully understaffed. Whent continued that theme last week. “Unfortunately, low staffing levels have plagued OPD,” he wrote in his report, attempting to explain why the department has failed to implement reforms that called for an increased emphasis on crime investigations and were recommended twice by the city’s police consultants.
Whent’s solution? Oakland needs to add 169 cops to its 720-member police force. There is no doubt that OPD is understaffed, but Whent’s number is unrealistic. To hire 170 cops right away, Oakland would have to either cut nearly every city service to the bone or bankrupt itself. Even Mayor Libby Schaaf, who plans to increase the size of the force, has said that OPD will not reach 800 officers (about 100 short of Whent’s demand) for about three more years.
Nonetheless, no councilmember publicly challenged Whent’s assertion. And so it appears that OPD is not going to prioritize crime-solving any time soon.
However, a closer examination of the department’s staffing levels and budget reveals that it could easily make crime-solving a priority with its current staff, but is choosing not to do so. According to Whent’s own report, OPD only has 133 sworn officers assigned to its Criminal Investigation Division (CID). That represents about 18 percent of the force. And according to the city’s finances, CID uses only about 13 percent of OPD’s budget.
So how is OPD spending its money? Patrolling city streets, mostly. According to the city’s budget, OPD assigned about 61 percent of its total staff and 54 percent of its total funds this year to its Bureau of Fields Operations.
It’s axiomatic that an entity’s budget and staffing represent its priorities and vision. And for OPD, it’s clear that the primary mission of the department is to have officers driving around the city looking to prevent crime from happening — rather than investigating and solving crimes that have already occurred.
Perhaps that’s a defensible position, but it has significant drawbacks, particularly in a city like Oakland. For starters, patrol officers play a major role in keeping low-income and Black residents in poverty in the city. As we reported in an in-depth cover story earlier this month (see “The High Cost of Driving While Poor,” 5/6), poor and Black residents are disproportionately stopped for minor traffic violations in Oakland, primarily because OPD focuses its patrols on low-income areas with high-crime rates. We’re talking about thousands of police stops each year for things like broken taillights or lacking insurance. And these stops come with huge fines many people can’t afford. And when they don’t pay, they lose their licenses and get hounded by bill collectors.
Unnecessary stops by patrol officers also further harm the already frayed relationship between police and people of color. Residents of low-income areas often say they feel as if they’re under siege, constantly harassed by cops for walking or driving while Black or brown. The unnecessary stops also can result in violent confrontations with officers.
Plus, the stops make it harder for police to investigate and solve crimes. For years, OPD has complained that many city residents refuse to cooperate with investigators when they become a victim of a crime or witness one. Is it any wonder when these folks’ only interaction with police is being stopped for a minor vehicle infraction?
At the same time, unnecessary stops not only reduce the quality of life for many residents, but also likely make crime worse. After all, when people commit robberies and burglaries in Oakland, they can be fairly certain they can do it with impunity, because OPD is too busy driving around poor neighborhoods.
And yet the department continues to soldier on, acting as if focusing its resources on patrol rather than crime-solving is the best way to reduce crime, despite years of evidence to the contrary. In truth, OPD, today, could train a fraction of its patrol officers to become investigators, and could quickly increase the number of crimes it investigates and solves. And it could do it without having to hire 170 more cops. But it’s not doing so, because it would rather blame the problem on a shortage of police. And our city leadership still seems perfectly happy with that explanation.