Oakland police officers, community leaders warn against laying off cops
on June 21, 2010
On Monday morning, Oakland police officers and community leaders gathered at the site of a recent murder in West Oakland to warn of what could follow if Oakland’s police force is drastically cut to help close the city’s $31.5 million budget gap. “This is a dangerous city,” Dominique Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, told a small group composed mostly of journalists. Laying off one quarter of the police staff, he said, “sends the wrong message.”
Arotzarena spoke from a thin wooden podium set up in a parking lot at the corner of 8th Street and Adeline Street in West Oakland, across from the corner store where James Lee Johnson was shot and killed on June 6. Two suspected gang members were later arrested and charged with the murder.
Gwendolyn Randle, the mother of Johnson’s son, spoke at the press conference, crediting the police and neighbors for nabbing Johnson’s suspected killers. “We are so grateful for that. So I truly think that it would be wrong to lay off these officers,” Randle said.
The Oakland City Council will consider cutting 200 police jobs as it rushes to trim $31.5 million from the city’s general fund before the June 30th deadline to submit next year’s budget. At the press conference, church leaders, community members, and current and former officers spoke against the plan.
“Crime is the number one concern of all Oakland residents,” said Greg McConnell, president of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, a non-profit business group that has polled extensively on the issue. “We strongly encourage that this does not occur.”
Burney Matthews, a retired Oakland police officer and former chief of police for the city of Alameda, said his concern was for the safety of officers on the beat. “They need adequate cover, backup and resources to do the job right and keep themselves safe.”
Several church leaders worried that the police wouldn’t be able to contend with another budget fallout, though this one at the state level—the potential early release of thousands of prisoners across California over the next few years. “With no jobs, no skills, no opportunities for them to infiltrate into mainstream society, there’s no way police can handle that,” said Bishop Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ.
After the conference, Randle, who lives in East Oakland, said Johnson used to call her to check on the safety of their son, James (nicknamed “Sug,” short for “Sugar”), when gunfights broke out in his West Oakland neighborhood. “He’d call me and say ‘Is Sug there? Ok, ‘cause they’re down here shooting and I wanted to make sure he’s not outside,'” Randle said.
Oakland’s violent crime rate has dropped in recent years, but the city remains one of the nation’s most violent. Measure Y, passed by voters in 2004, requires the city to maintain 739 officers on staff in order to get nearly $20 million in funding for violence prevention programs, additional police and fire services. The city’s continued financial crisis has made maintaining that level difficult, even though layoffs would mean losing the $20 million from Measure Y.
At an Oakland City Council meeting last week, several council members took aim at the pension program for police officers and fire personnel, which is funded entirely by the city, suggesting that officers contribute more to their retirement funds. Other city employees are required to contribute 9 percent of their paychecks to their funds.
Asked at the press conference if members of the police officer’s union would consider contributing to their pensions, Arotzarena said it was still in negotiations with the city, but he reminded the crowd that the officers had made concessions in last year’s budget negotiations in order to save the city $34.2 million over the next three and a half years. Among the concessions, officers agreed to forego a 4 percent raise, give up six holidays for three years, and start paying 2 percent into their pension funds when the union’s existing contract is up in 2013.
At the conference, Arotzarena tried to steer the discussion away from pensions. “Anything can be subject to negotiation,” he said, “but I need guarantees of public safety, and that means no layoffs of police officers.”
The city council will begin to debate options for balancing the budget at a special meeting on Thursday evening, June 24. If the council does decide to eliminate police jobs, Collin Wong, a former Oakland police officer who now owns a private security company, said his firm may be able to hire some laid-off cops. “We never thought we’d be in a position to backstop the POA [Police Officer’s Association],” he said after the press conference, shaking his head.
The officers’ union is hosting a job fair on Tuesday, June 22, to connect potential employers to officers threatened with layoffs.
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