Residents at last Wednesday night’s Golden Gate neighborhood community policing meeting noticed one glaring absence: For the first time they could remember, there was not a police officer in attendance.
“We have been informed that there are no [problem-solving officers] anymore,” Golden Gate NCPC chair Larry Benson told the 20 residents who attended the meeting. “But I thought an officer was supposed to be here.”
Since the layoff of 80 police officers on July 13 due to Oakland’s $30.5 million budget shortfall, the city’s policing strategy has changed. With fewer officers, the Oakland Police Department plans to focus more on emergencies and less on community problem-solving and the investigation of non-violent crimes.
“With less resources and personnel, we can handle less,” said Holly Joshi, public information officer for the Oakland Police Department.
Not only will that mean fewer officers at community meetings, but the OPD can’t send officers out to take reports and investigate non-violent crimes as often as they used to. The department is now requiring victims of non-violent and non-emergency crimes—typically referred to as “priority three” or “priority four” crimes—to report them online, via a system called Coplogic.
“Any calls where people’s lives are in danger we’ll still be responding to,” Joshi said. But crimes like theft, vandalism and car thefts and break-ins must now be reported online. The police department says other crimes, such as residential burglaries and identity theft, will soon be added to the list. While an officer will be assigned to review the online report, unless there is a hard lead on a suspect, the city will not send out an officer to investigate the crime.
Joshi says that these service cutbacks mean that the need for community policing in neighborhoods will rise, even as the level of coordination and help each NCPC receives from the city will certainly diminish.
After the passage of Measure Y in 2004, which required the city to maintain a specific number of officers in order to retain funding for the police and fire departments and violence prevention programs, the city’s 57 neighborhood beats were each assigned a problem-solving officer (PSO), in addition to regular patrol officers. The problem-solving officers would attend community policing meetings to determine which problems local residents would like to solve, like fighting graffiti and other forms of blight, and then help community members work toward their goal.
But with 80 fewer officers to patrol the streets, problem-solving officers are now a luxury. Some were laid off, and others, like the officer stationed in Golden Gate, have been moved to a regular patrol beat.
The police department currently has 694 officers on staff and expects to lose three to four each month due to attrition as officers retire or move away. If voters don’t pass an amendment to Measure Y this fall that will allow the city to retain its funding without having to maintain a specific number of police officers, another round of severe cuts will be made to the force in January.
Golden Gate residents spoke of their safety concerns at Wednesday night’s meeting as they grappled with the fact that they would be largely on their own in solving their neighborhood’s problems. When Benson asked attendees if anyone had a neighborhood problem they wanted to share with the group, nearly every hand in the room went up. Of the greatest concern to residents at the meeting were issues of prostitution, graffiti, and drugs.
“They’re coming from out of the area and prostituting on San Pablo Avenue,” one woman who lives on that street told the group. “It’s becoming a destination.”
Several people in the room said they had noticed police officers from neighboring Emeryville and Berkeley responding to calls in the Golden Gate neighborhood, and one woman went further. “In an emergency, I call [the] Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville [police departments],” she said, to laughter and the nodding of heads. “I see who comes first.”
Benson and other NCPC leaders listened to concerns and wrote down suggestions to present at a city-wide NCPC meeting this Monday, at which there will be a discussion of community policing’s role in Oakland. They encouraged attendees to lock their doors and windows and suggested starting a phone tree for each block so that neighbors can keep an eye out for each other and make multiple calls to the police when a crime occurs, theoretically ensuring a police response.
But Benson was frustrated Wednesday night, unsure of how community policing will look in the future without the physical presence of officers in his neighborhood. “The community will get restless with the lack of police help,” he said. “It’s not a crime-solving meeting unless the police are here.”
Joshi said the OPD remains committed to the Golden Gate group and its counterparts around the city as well as to the broader concept behind them. “The Oakland Police Department is operating off of community policing,” she said. “That’s our philosophy. That’s going to continue.”
Joshi urged residents to get involved in their neighborhoods, and promised that the OPD will continue to respond to emergencies. “We’re going to be there if there’s anything in progress that’s threatening someone’s life. There’s no panic needed that OPD won’t be there,” Joshi continued. “Overall advice: Get more involved in crime prevention yourself. Lock your doors and windows, report suspicious people casing someone’s house, and look out for your neighbors. Be aware of your surroundings.”