After community policing positions in the Oakland police department were temporarily cut last summer due to city budget constraints, nearly all 57 problem-solving officers (PSOs) have returned to duty, working their first shift on January 15.
“The PSOs are an extra layer of accountability for the public,” said Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Holly Joshi, “and they’ll return to working directly with people on their beat.”
PSOs, funded by violence prevention funds from the Measure Y tax, work with Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils to address and solve problems like blight and drug dealing in their communities. The positions were cut last summer when police staffing fell below the level required by the law; the city laid off 80 officers in July. But with the passage of Measure BB in November, the city resumed collecting the tax while nixing the minimum staffing level requirement.
The reinstated PSO positions will be staffed by current officers, and do not bring back officers laid off last summer. This places a burden on the police department, leaving other positions short-staffed. The PSO positions are being filled mainly by patrol officers, along with a few officers from the investigative bureau.
There’s also been a reconfiguration in the beats each officer will work. Oakland had 35 police beats since the late 90s, but after the passage of Measure Y in 2004 resulted in the creation of PSOs, the OPD further divided the beats into 57. Now, facing the redeployment of PSOs but having fewer patrol officers to assign, Joshi said, the department will return to using the original 35 beats.
Joshi said the new assignments are a response to budget constraints during a time when staffing in the Oakland Police Department is the lowest it’s been since 1994. There are currently 656 sworn officers on the force, down from 839 two years ago. “We have to be smart with our resources, we have to do more with less,” she said.
Joshi said that that the department will not deploy officers to the 35 beats based on their geographical size, but rather the demands for calls for services, or their designation as “stressor” areas. Beats like 13X, Y and Z in Montclair, will share one officer while beats that have higher crime rates, such as 20X in Fruitvale, will get a second officer. Area commanders will help the OPD to determine these stressor spots, Joshi said.
“I understand that some people are going to be frustrated, but it won’t affect their quality of service,” Joshi said. “PSOs will continue to work on all of beat projects as assigned by their NCPC.”
At a NCPC sponsored community meeting Wednesday night, residents in Temescal Beat 12X learned about their new PSO, Officer Maureen Vergara, who is temporarily assigned to be the Area 1 command sergeant but will start her work as the Temescal PSO in two months. In her place, Officer Randall Chew, who serves the neighboring 12Y Temescal beat, introduced himself to over 50 neighbors who came out for Wednesday’s two-hour talk on personal safety and home security. Chew will be the PSO for both 12Y and 12X until Vergara takes over the post.
Like more than half of the returning PSOs, Vergara and Chew have previously served as problem-solving officers—Chew used to be the PSO in 13X Upper Rockridge and Vergara was formerly in the Montclair, 13Y/13X beat area.
When the position was disbanded in July, most former PSOs went to work within patrol. But when Measure BB passed, the OPD held an application process for the reinstated positions, and over half of the former PSOs reapplied. Joshi said that most of the former PSOs are returning to the same district where they previously served, so they will be familiar with the neighborhood, but almost all of them were assigned new beats. Joshi said this it was done to ensure that each officer’s skill set and background best match the beat they are serving.
NCPC Beat 12X Temescal chairman Lee Edwards said he and his neighbors are ready to restore their previous policy of establishing their beat’s crime priorities, handing them off to their PSO at a monthly neighborhood meeting, then having them return the following month to report how they’ve resolved those problems.
But Edwards said he’s aware that PSOs will have other responsibilities from time to time because of the police department’s reduced staffing. The primary responsibility of PSOs will continue to be their neighborhood beat, but there will times when OPD commanders will need to call them in for other responsibilities, like answering 911 calls.
Still, said Edwards, “We’re very hopeful this will once again give citizens of Oakland direct input into the police department.”
For a full list of PSO assignments, go to http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca/groups/police/documents/agenda/dowd005594.pdf.
And to find out which NCPC beat you live in: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca/groups/police/documents/webcontent/dowd006291.pdf