When voters passed Measure BB in November, Oakland residents may have thought they were helping resolve the Oakland Police Department’s funding and staffing woes. But with the new year around the corner and a city budget still in crisis, Oakland officials and residents warn that the effects of the measure’s passage are more complex than that—and could end up causing more harm than good to a city recently ranked the fifth most dangerous in the nation.
In January, residents will receive what they voted for in Measure BB: the restoration of 75 community police officer positions. But in order to do that, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts has declared, these Problem Solving Officers, or PSOs, will have to be pulled from the steadily decreasing rank-and-file force.
The Youth and Family Services division, which handles sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence cases, will be one of the units hurt the most. This unit will merge with the Criminal Investigation Division, which handles homicides, robberies, shootings and burglaries. With the merge, 11 officers will be transferred out of the new unit to the patrol division, which will mean some kinds of cases, such as property crimes, will get even less attention than they do now.
“I’ll be clear to you. I do not have enough police officers. Period,” Batts said at a press conference in late November, adding that the city needs at least 925 officers—that’s 255 more than it has now—to provide adequate police coverage.
The passage of Measure BB will not help that officer deficit, and because a separate tax measure failed in the same election, will make certain kinds of patrol staffing even more complicated for the police department.
“Citizens are going to get what they paid for,” Sergeant Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said in a recent interview. “Measure BB was a good thing to pass to keep minimum officers on the force, but it only works if you have a support system with it. You can’t have one without the other.”
The language of Measure BB declared simply that it amended a previously-adopted violence prevention and public safety act from 2004 called Measure Y. That measure collected taxes specifically for certain “violence prevention” initiatives, including new Problem Solving Officers, PSOs, to be added to each of the city’s policing beats. But Measure Y contained a catch: If police staffing levels went below 739 officers funds, the tax could no longer be collected.
Then in July, citing demands of the budget, the city laid off 80 officers. That brought the police force down from 695 officers to the number it’s at now—669 officers—far below the minimum that Measure Y required.
As a result, the Measure Y tax collection was halted. The department pulled its officers out of the community-policing program, which both residents and business owners said had helped bring down Oakland’s high crime rate. Some of the officers were moved to other high priority units like responding to 911 calls; others were let go all together. After July, 2010, other anti-violence, fire and police programs were paid for through the city’s general fund as a way to keep services deemed vital to the city afloat.
Two measures were placed on the November ballot as attempts to refund the police department. Measure BB, which simply eliminated the threshold requirement so that Measure Y taxes could continue to be collected—a total of $19 million annually—was one of them. It passed with 70.7 percent of the vote. Measure X, the other police funding measure on November’s ballot, lost. That measure, which would have instituted a $360 per year parcel tax, was rejected by voters 72 to 27 percent.
Now, even with the staffing level requirements removed, OPD Bureau of Field Operations Deputy Chief Eric Breshears stresses that Measure BB will not add more officers to the force. Although it may have temporarily prevented department-wide layoffs, which were set for January had neither Measure BB nor Measure X passed, it does not address the ongoing attrition of police officers.
In addition to the layoff of 80 officers in July, 21 more have retired, 12 have left for other police departments, five have quit and one has been fired—dropping the total number of current officers to 669. At an average of five people leaving monthly, that number could drop much further in the coming months.
Oakland City Administrator Dan Lindheim has said even with Measure BB, there is only enough money to pay for 637 positions in the next year, making it the lowest rank-and-file police force number since 1987.
In fact, because it puts Measure Y back into effect, requiring at least 63 PSOs to return to service, the passage of Measure BB will pull officers from other kinds of law enforcement roles. The PSOs will have to come from somewhere, and a tight-pocketed OPD does not expect to be hiring anytime soon.
“We are not running academies, and not bringing people back,” Breshears said, adding that many of the PSOs will be transferred from the department’s Bureau of Investigation, where the crime reduction team is housed. The impact, he explained, will mean there will be fewer officers to follow up on investigations and prevent crime.
Batts said PSOs will have the same duties they did before July—dealing with quality of life issues like vandalism, harassment and theft, and will continue to receive their directives from the communities to which they are assigned. The police department has also asked for officers to step and volunteer to fill the PSO positions.
But some neighbors say that shifting PSOs back to the neighborhoods may not be a complete solution to the city’s policing problems. “They may label a couple of officers PSOs—but we don’t have a police force that can handle the luxury of PSOs,” said Nancy Sidebotham, Beat 29X NCPC and Community Policing Advisory Board Chair.
Sidebotham said her past PSO beat officer knew who caused problems in her neighborhood, which is near Mills College. The problem with the PSOs plan, she said, is that because some of the PSOs were laid off in July, the department will now bring new people into new neighborhoods they don’t know.
The department is now considering ways to bring more officers into service, including looking for grant money to pay for officers’ salaries instead of using Measure BB and general fund money. Breshears said at a news briefing on Monday that the department should have a minimum of 420 officers assigned to the patrol division, which would include beat officers, a 75 member problem-solving unit, including supervisors, other specialized units.
Breshears also said OPD plans to increase the number of retired officers brought back to work in various positions at an hourly rate, but not as patrol officers. “I know the chief’s been in discussion with the mayor-elect,” Breshears said about recruiting more officers in the future, “but there are no definite plans to hire new officers.”
Arotzarena said the union believes there is money available to bring officers back because of salary savings. He asserts that millions of dollars have been saved since July, when 80 police officers were laid off. There could be even more savings, he said, since at least a dozen more officers have left recently.
“Measure BB is only going to work if we have more staff,” Arotzarena said, “When a PSO identifies an issue from patrolling or from a resident, they need to bring someone in. Now there’s no support system to help them. It’s a failed system.”
But it may be too late for the city to rehire some laid-off officers—of the 80 officers laid off, 50 percent have already found jobs elsewhere, including seven who have recently been hired by the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office. “I can’t blame [officers] for leaving,” Arotzarena said. “They’re tired of the politics and tired of seeing politicians bad mouthing them because of their pension.”
The police officers’ union and the city are at a standstill over the amount that officers should pay into their pensions. Mayor-elect Jean Quan said that paying for the police department takes up 40 percent of the city’s budget, and that Oakland police officers are the highest paid in the nation. Historically, Oakland police officers have not contributed to their pension plans and are able to retire with full pay at age 50.
On December 14, the city council’s Public Safety Committee will meet to discuss a proposal that will merge the Community Police Advisory Board and the Violence Prevention Public Safety Oversight Committee. The combined group would be in charge of monitoring how Measure Y funds are used.