By MELANIE MASON
Nov. 14–For the 38 members of the 165th Basic Academy class of the Oakland police department, today’s graduation ceremony was the culmination of 26 weeks of what class valedictorian Officer Mark Douglas called “sweat and muscle and jungle work.” Jungle work was a catch-all term, a composite of the indignities and triumphs that marked their journeys to become Oakland police officers. Sitting in their on-stage seats in the auditorium of the Elihu Harris State Building, Douglas’ classmates echoed his rallying cry.
But just as today was a day of their own personal achievements, so too was it a landmark moment for the city of Oakland. By bringing these graduates into the ranks, the city now has a police force of 837 officers, a size that surpasses the requirement of 803 officers mandated by Measure Y, a police expansion measure approved by Oakland voters in 2004.
“We have now met the test and responsibility of Measure Y,” said Mayor Ron Dellums. “That’s an extraordinary thing.”
Measure Y costs Oakland taxpayers nearly $20 million a year in parcel taxes and increased parking surcharges. But the intent of Measure Y, to increase the size of the police force and specifically, to fully staff each of the 57 community policing beats with one problem solving officer, has taken years to be fulfilled.
In Dellums’ “State of the City” address on January 14, he pledged to honor the 2004 voters’ will as expressed in Measure Y. This year saw an increase in recruitment efforts in order to cross that 803 officer threshold.
“Today is a historical day,” Dellums said during the ceremony. “This is not magic that brought us to this moment. It was sweat, tears and very hard work.”
The ceremony began with the inspection of the class by Dellums and Chief of Police Wayne Tucker, followed by the distribution of badges that marked the new officers’ promotion into the ranks of the police department. The new officers then took the oath of office, prompting cheers and applause from the audience.
Tucker praised the graduates for completing “the most rigorous rookie academy in the state.” He later noted that the work does not stop now that academy has been completed. “Many of them start work at 8 AM tomorrow morning,” he said.
One of those new officers is Tim Gougeon, 24, a former mortgage banker from Michigan. Gougeon said he came out west to see California and decided to be become a police officer “to do something [he] hadn’t done before.” Academy was tough, he said, with intense physical challenges and 12 hour days that seemed to last an eternity. Now a graduate, he said he’s looking forward to 16 weeks of training in the field.
Gougeon, like his fellow graduates, spent his time after the ceremony taking pictures and sharing congratulations. Punch was served, cake was eaten and multiple-generation families proudly fussed over the newly-minted officers.
But even amid the celebration, city and police officials warned that the staffing goals reached today may only be temporary. In a city strapped for cash, Dellums estimated Oakland would have the funds to maintain current levels of police staffing until summer 2009. Dellums proposed postponing the next academy to save money. But, he said, “There comes a point where the money goes away.”
Dellums said this financial strain was the reason he advocated Measure NN, a ballot initiative that would have imposed a parcel tax to expand the police force. On Nov. 4, the measure received 54% approval from Oakland voters but failed to reach the 2/3 vote required to pass.
“It takes a simple majority to go to war, but you need 2/3 of the vote to tax people,” Dellums said. “Are these supermajorities really consistent with the concept of democracy?”
Dellums said he believed the message of the importance of NN was not made clear enough to Oakland voters. He said he would consider coming back to the public with Measure NN in a special election.
Charles Pine, an Allendale resident and director of the community group Oakland Residents for Peaceful Neighborhoods, opposed Measure NN in part, he said, because of the city’s delay in implementing the staff levels mandated by Measure Y. His organization’s web site has been running a daily tally of days OPD has failed to reach the threshold of 803 officers. After today’s graduation, Pine says he will freeze that tally, but he is still wary of OPD’s ability to maintain sufficient staffing levels.
“It’s better late than never,” said Pine. “But let’s remember the performance record.” Pine said that despite the increasing ranks of the police department, crime remains a major concern in the city; he cited the recent string of daytime burglaries in Montclair as an example.
Dellums said recent efforts by OPD have made a difference. “If you look objectively at all the data gathered about public safety, crime is down. The strategy is beginning to work,” he said. “Look over the last few weeks, you get the sense that something is starting to happen in Oakland. I cross my fingers that it remains.”
Dellums said he was looking to this new generation of police officers to help make Oakland a model city. Tucker echoed those sentiments, urging the new graduates to make a long-time commitment to the force. “This is a cradle to grave operation for us,” he said.
Gougeon is one new police officer planning to stay in the force for a long time. “I’ve had jobs all my life,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve had a career.”