Oakland Grapples With Depleted Force
OAKLAND-The Oakland Police Department is down to 650 officers from 800 a year ago. With the cutbacks, the department says it is struggling to maintain law and order in high-crime neighborhoods like East Oakland.
A year ago, about eight officers patrolled the area near the eastern border of the city, a roughly 10-square-mile zone. Today, during most shifts, just three officers walk the beat in the neighborhood, which is known for its drug problems and prostitution. On some days, there are so few officers that none visits some beats in East Oakland at all, says the police department.
The department laid off about 80 officers, or around 10% of the total force, last year in response to the city's budget shortfall. More officers have been lost through attrition, the OPD says.
"We don't have the numbers to be a proactive police force," says Anthony Batts, Oakland's police chief. Cities of a size like Oakland, he says, should have more than 900 police officers.
But other city and community leaders, led by the newly elected mayor, Jean Quan, say more cops on the streets won't necessarily solve the crime problems in this city of 400,000. Instead, she says, the city has been ramping up efforts such as conflict-resolution programs as part of a broader approach to crime-fighting.
"I would like more police, but the city is facing a really difficult economic environment," says Ms. Quan. "For the short term, we will have to pay attention to how police are deployed and rely on intervention and prevention programs."
Cities around the U.S. have grappled with similar problems to varying degrees, as municipal budgets hard hit by the weaker economy have led to law-enforcement cutbacks. In the Bay Area, towns such as San Carlos have outsourced their policing to the San Mateo County Sheriff Department, saving an estimated $2 million a year, because they had no funds to pay their own police force.
In Oakland, police officials say the cuts have hurt the department's ability to stop crime before it happens. To fill understaffed car patrol units, the department has scaled down gang and drug task-force units, as well other specialized crime units. The department also says it has pushed high-ranking managing officers and administrative officers away from desk jobs to the street to help with car patrols, among other moves.
The predicament is acute in Oakland because it ranks as one of California's most violent towns. The city had the state's highest homicide rate among big cities last year, with 21.9 murders per 100,000 people, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation figures.
But Oakland's crime rate has been going down overall. Last year's homicide rate was down from 24.5 per 100,000 residents in 2009. Since 2008, the city has seen a near 20% drop in so-called Part 1 crimes, a category that includes the most prevalent violent and property crimes such as murder, shootings and burglaries. The reduction included a 54% drop in auto thefts and 30% drop in carjackings.
Still, some of the gains appear to be slipping away, especially in crime categories such as aggravated assaults. Last year, aggravated assaults using firearms jumped 22% to 900 incidents from 700 in 2009, according to a year-end report published by the police department. Home invasions increased 43% to 183 incidents from 128 in 2009.
"The criminals know we're packing it in," says John McDonell, a former Oakland patrol officer laid off last year, who until recently was a member of the city's reserve force. "When you talk to the prostitutes [and] the dope pushers, they see the lack of presence on the streets."
Before his layoff, Mr. McDonell worked on police units that tackled drugs and prostitution along International Boulevard, a main thoroughfare crossing some of Oakland's most violent neighborhoods. He says violence-suppression units operating near High Street and 55th Avenue, a major crime corridor, had cleared prostitution and drugs, but that it has now returned. The city didn't provide any crime data broken down by neighborhood.
Mr. Batts, who is currently under consideration for the police chief job in San Jose, says the layoffs caused the department's morale to suffer, accelerating other departures and retirements.
When Mr. Batts arrived in Oakland in November 2009, he hoped to turn the police department around. He relied on strategies such as "hot-spot policing"-saturating violent neighborhoods with police units focused on specific crimes-that he had honed in Long Beach, Calif., where he served for nearly 30 years, including as chief. He also organized monthly meetings with police chiefs in Alameda, San Francisco, East Palo Alto and other neighboring cities to share intelligence and strategize on regional policing, a first for the Bay Area. The layoffs, he says, brought that activity to a halt.
Voters so far have rejected the department's pleas for more resources, most recently defeating a November ballot measure that would have boosted taxes to pay for more policing.
Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a community improvement nonprofit, and a member of Mayor Quan's transition team, says Oakland residents made their preference known for more community involvement and violence-prevention programs, instead of singular focus on police suppression.
"You could have a police officer on every single corner to lower the crime rate," he says, "but that's just not what Oakland wants."
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