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Oakland’s community policing program fears possible cuts

on January 8, 2010

With Oakland facing a projected $25 million deficit for 2010, the city’s Community Police Advisory Board voiced concern Wednesday that the 13 civilian staff members in the Neighborhood Services Division (NSD), the police department’s community policing program, might be dismissed.

“We have seasoned coordinators who know the communities and know organizing,” said Dorlista Reed, the NSD’s public safety coordinator. “If this changes, there’s not going to be anyone to train [new officers] in community-involved policing.”

Reed’s comments came during the advisory board’s monthly meeting at City Hall on Wednesday. She asked the board to lobby against cuts in the community-policing program. Reed said disbanding the NSD would seriously weaken the city’s community police work by undercutting the support staff that works with the Oakland Police Department’s 63 uniformed problem solving officers (PSOs) to address chronic crime issues in the city’s neighborhoods.

When the City Council eliminated $100 million from the city’s budget in 2009 under tight fiscal conditions, the number of sworn officers in the police department remained unchanged. The OPD managed to reduce crime rates across the city last year, including a 12 percent drop in homicides, but the department exceeded its budget by $4.29 million last year, primarily through increased overtime. The department currently employs 788 officers and some worry that the OPD now may have to resort to administrative staff reductions to trim its budget without pulling officers off the street.

Reed noted that while no official word has come as to whether her division will face cuts, conversations with OPD and city officials had given her cause for concern.

“This is speculation at this point, but it is anticipated,” she said.

Board member Josephine Lee, from the Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee, said that potential cuts were part of a trend by the police department to regard work by the Neighborhood Services Division as redundant to the work of problem solving officers.

“This has come up before and we’ve had to go to bat for the NSD,” Lee said. “They are our connection between the police and the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils, and we need them.”

Oakland has 57 of these neighborhood councils, known as NCPCs. These volunteer community organizations hold monthly meetings to identify local problems and develop strategies with police and city staff to resolve them. NCPC chairs say the Neighborhood Service Division provides an important link between the community and the police department. “I’m the guy that talks to the OPD, but really it’s through the neighborhood service coordinators,” said Larry Benson, chair of the 10X group in North Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. “If you can convince them, they can convince the officer.”

Benson said his NCPC in Golden Gate has operated without a full-time NSD staff member for the last three months. Characterizing his neighborhood’s communication with the OPD as “horrible,” Benson said a permanent NSD staff reduction would be a serious problem.

“Community policing is already hanging by a thread,” he said. “I don’t see any point in continuing if they cut the neighborhood service coordinators.”

Jose Dorado, chair of the Maxwell Park NCPC near Mills College, said Thursday that the loss of NSD staff in his beat would be a problem, but could be solved if NCPCs were able to work more closely with a problem solving officer.

“If they cut all the positions or cut the program back so that one [staff member] covered 10 beats, we’d hardly see them at all,” Dorado said. “But if we had an effective relationship with our PSO, I think we could make up that gap.”

When asked Thursday about the potential program cuts, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said the OPD did not know yet if cuts would happen and that the City Council would make all final decisions. “We have submitted some policy proposals to our bosses to take a look at, so they get the responsibility of saying yea or nay,” he said.

Funding for OPD problem solving officers dates to 2004, when Oakland residents passed a special parcel tax known as Measure Y. Measure Y provides $20 million a year for violence prevention programs and funds 63 Oakland police officers that are assigned to neighborhood beats to work with the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils. These police officers and neighborhood associations work together to identify and resolve chronic problems such as muggings and vandalism that don’t always require 911 emergency calls.

Measure Y pays for the 63 problem solving officers as long as the police department commits to employing at least 739 sworn peace officers. This provision makes it difficult for the OPD to cut officers without eliminating the entire community policing program. With current staff – including senior management such as Chief Batts – at 788, further reductions in officers could jeopardize the $9 million in funding that sustains the 63 problem solving officers.

Lt. Freddie Hamilton, an OPD area commander covering North and West Oakland, said during Wednesday’s advisory board meeting that cuts to the neighborhood service coordinators would be detrimental to the department’s community policing program. He said NSD staff provides added capabilities for the problem solving officers, including access to other city government departments.

“I think [they] play a very vital role in what we are trying to do,” Hamilton said. “[Program cuts] would hamper our ability to disseminate information to the community, and gather information from the community.”

Amid the discussion on the future of community policing, Lt. Hamilton delivered OPD’s 2009 end-of-year crime statistics to the board. Overall, Hamilton said, the more serious crimes, known as Part 1, dropped by 10 percent compared with 2008, including a 12 percent drop in homicides and 25 percent drop in assaults with a deadly weapon.

Jeff Baker, an assistant to the city administrator, reminded the board that the City Council has not received any formal proposals for budget cuts. He said that until proposed budget cuts are finalized, discussion was merely speculative.

“I would suggest that this board wait until we actually get into the budget process,” Baker said. “Look at the draft documents that come from the city administrator’s office, and then, if necessary, galvanize your resources to call more attention to the issue.”

Additional Reporting by Mario Furloni

1 Comment

  1. […] the only ones facing possible reductions. Civilian positions in the police department, such as the neighborhood service coordinators, may also be terminated due to budget problems. According to OPD’s principal financial analyst […]

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