Oakland gets funding to hire 15 new police officers

The 167th Police Academy graduated in Oakland in September 2013. Photo by Jason Paladino.

The 167th Police Academy graduated in Oakland in September 2013. Photo by Jason Paladino.

Oakland has received a $1.87 million grant from the Department of Justice to fund the hiring of 15 new police officers over the next three years. With these officers, the department will be on course to reach its highest level of officer staffing since 2010.

The new money is part of a nationwide grant from the US Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Ron Davis, the director of COPS, is a former Oakland police captain.

This year, COPS awarded $124 million to law enforcement agencies across the country to hire or rehire community policing officers. These funds will create nearly 950 officers in 215 cities and communities nationwide and will fund 75 percent of the salary and benefits of the new officers for three years, according to US Attorney General Eric Holder. The support will “strengthen relationships between these officers and the communities they serve, improve public safety and keep law enforcement officers on the beat,” Holder stated in a press release on Monday.

“Funding that helps pay for 15 more officers is a welcome addition” to crime reduction efforts, said Sean Maher, communications director for the Oakland mayor’s office. Every resource that the city can bring to bear on crime is “meaningful,” said Maher, calling the COPS grant “an important piece” of the wider strategy.

Maher said that “violent crime is seeing strong reductions this year and saw them last year as well,” and noted that Oakland is “currently on pace to its lowest number of homicides since 1999.” The city has had 51 murders so far this year, in comparison with 73, 84, and 81 by the same week in 2013, 2012 and 2011 respectively. He credited the drop to Ceasefire, a crime reduction strategy based on a partnership between the OPD and community leaders, and last year’s reorganization of the police department, which divided the city up into five sections to give local communities greater accessibility to their police officers.

But crime is not down overall. Certain crimes, such as rape and assault, are up in 2014. Simple assault, which includes domestic battery and child abuse, has climbed from 1,973 assaults in 2011 (at this point in the year) to 2,222 so far this year, a 12 percent rise, and rape is up by 9 percent from the same time last year.

“Police aren’t outside the community; they’re inside the community they serve and protect,” said James Lewis, communications director for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland at the federal level, and who lobbied for the grant. He said the new police officers would allow for a police force that will work both with and in the community to support public safety. Larger law enforcement departments are a step towards “solving the issue” of crime in California District 13, he said.

Congresswoman Lee also announced a violence reduction network this week, which will give cities access to Justice Department resources, including specialized training and technical help from federal agents, in order to fight crime. Lewis said together with gun reform laws to take dangerous firearms off the streets, and support programs for young people, District 13 is moving towards a “comprehensive” solution to violent crime. “Everyone needs to be rowing the boat in the same direction,” said Lewis. “The federal dollars are one small part of the overall larger effort.”

The new officers will go through the police academy, like all other recruits to the OPD, Maher said. Five officers will be hired each year for the next three years through the grant, and police staffers said that the money will pay for about a third of their salaries. The remainder of their salaries will be paid through the city budget, according to Quan’s office.

The officers will focus on community policing, which Police Chief Sean Whent has concentrated on since his appointment last year and which guided the reorganization of the department. Community policing aims to create a working partnership between the community and the police to assess, prevent, and solve neighborhood crimes and problems. Community policing officers serve in all sorts of functions, from coordinating Neighborhood Watch and Merchant Watch groups, to patrolling assigned beats. “A police force that works arm-in-arm with the community it serves to reduce crime is going to be immeasurably more effective,” said Maher. “These officers are going to be used [for community policing] because that is now the guiding principle of Oakland police, department-wide.”

The city’s police department pays officers an average salary—$107,601.34 in 2013—that is almost double the national average of $58,720—but has struggled with recruitment in recent years, and also faced staffing cuts.

Right now, Oakland has 684 sworn officers. Police officials predict that when the 170th Academy graduates at the end of October, there will be over 700 officers. This will be the highest level of staffing since July 2010, when there were 775 officers. That month, 80 officers were laid off as part of budget cuts that attempted to address the city’s $31.5 million deficit. In the 2013-14 city budget, the police and fire departments’ costs accounted for 60.39% of Oakland’s expenditure from its general fund.

In 2004, voters passed Measure Y, a violence prevention and public safety act. Measure Y funds, through a parcel tax and a parking surcharge, public safety measures including paying for the hiring and training of new OPD officers. Voters were promised a minimum of 803 officers for OPD under Measure Y, which sunsets on December 31, 2014. However, there have not been over 800 officers in Oakland since January 2009, when sworn staffing reached 830 officers.

In the upcoming election, a new public safety measure is on the ballot. If passed, Measure Z will replace Measure Y, and raise funds for more police officers and violence prevention programs. Measure Z includes a requirement that the city maintain 678 sworn police personnel.

But you can’t draw the simple conclusion that more police officers mean less crime. FBI and city data from 2006 to 2012 shows an unreliable relationship between the two. From 2006 to 2008, the number of Oakland police officers increased from 683 to 736, but the violent crime rate—which measures the number of cases for murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault per 100,000 residents—also went up, reaching 1,968.4. In 2009, the city had 830 officers, and the crime rate did decline; but in 2010 the crime rate continued to go down despite the city having fewer officers than before. And in 2013, police reporting showed the city had just 613 officers, the lowest staffing of the department in 14 years; but the total number of crimes committed fell from 39,049 in 2012 down to 38,708 in 2013, a drop of 1 percent.

In addition to the 15 new officers for Oakland, COPS grants were awarded to Alameda County, which will receive $1 million for eight sheriff’s deputies, and to San Leandro, which will receive $500,000 for four school resource officers in the police department. The grants were awarded based on the proposals—from Congresswoman Lee and Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda County law enforcement agencies—for community policing strategies as well as financial need and violent crime rates.

This is the fourth consecutive year that Oakland has been given federal funding for new officers. In 2013, Oakland received $4.5 million from COPS to recruit ten officers over three years. In 2011, the city was granted enough funding for 25 new officers from COPS—ten of whom had been laid off in the 2010 cuts.

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