Oakland Public Safety Committee discusses how to spend its $1 million gun tracing budget

Lieutenant Brandon Wehrly  addresses the Oakland City Council's Public Safety Committee.

Lieutenant Brandon Wehrly addresses the Oakland City Council's Public Safety Committee.

On Tuesday night, Oakland’s public safety committee gathered to discuss how they will spend the $1 million for gun tracing that Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan attained in a city budget amendment last summer. Kaplan has been an outspoken advocate for gun control, and gun violence is one of the key problems law enforcement officers are struggling to stem in Oakland.

Gun tracing means tracking a firearm from its manufacture through its purchase history. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the only government agency authorized to trace guns; in 2014, they received 360,000 trace requests from law enforcement agencies, the highest number ever. They are generally able to process trace requests within 24 hours for urgent cases and within 5 days for routine cases. Gun tracing advocates believe that tracking manufacturer information will help investigators solve firearms crimes, identify trafficking and build a more complete picture of criminal networks.

But getting firearm information to the ATF has been a problem in the past, said representatives from the police department. Lieutenant Brandon Wehrly painted a bleak picture of the technology currently available to the department’s forensics unit. He told the committee’s standing-room-only audience to imagine the OPD’s low-resolution cameras as “an 1800s camera, where you have to stand still and not smile.” When the OPD recovers a gun from a crime scene, he said, a staff member hand writes a card noting the gun’s serial number, make, model and who was in possession of it. Then the staff member has to piece together how it might be connected to other guns or casings they have processed, and mentally comb through who the gun owner’s associates are.

“Multiply that out several hundred times” for all of the cases they process on an annual basis, he said. But, department officials believe, with more personnel and better equipment, they will be able to streamline their workflow and stay on top of which guns need to be traced.

The police department is proposing a budgetary plan that would use the $1 million to pay for a police records specialist, two crime analysts, and overtime hours dedicated to supporting gun tracing efforts, as well as three gun microscope cameras, a gun laser scanner and other technology to support gun database entry and automation. These new resources will help officers to compare the detailed photographs of bullet casings that they collect at each crime scene, allowing them to determine the number of times the same gun has been used. They will also help them conduct social network analysis, seeing if there is a link between the people who have fired the guns later recovered at crime scenes.

According to the budget proposal, the gun laser scanner “can recreate all the shooting trajectories that gun examiners currently do with rods and measuring tape,” a task which currently occupies several investigators for days at a time. Having a laser scanner would make the shooting trajectory work faster, thereby freeing the investigators to focus on tracing the guns to their manufacturers.

OPD’s Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa said that about two years ago, the department was five to eight years behind in entering data into their system due to staffing shortages. Now, Figueroa said, they’re getting gun data into the system within three days on average, and within only one day during the workweek. But this data remains time-consuming to analyze and retrieve.

He recognized that Oakland, which has only one gun tracing analyst in their criminal investigation unit, will never have the resources of Los Angeles or Sacramento, larger agencies which have entire units dedicated to gun tracing. But, he said, tracing is a necessary task in Oakland; it helps the police identify whether the guns are being trafficked into the city through straw purchases, in which someone who can legally buy a gun buys one and hands it off to someone who can’t.

But the U.S. government is legally prohibited from storing the information they acquire during the firearm background check process, and does not maintain a national database tracking the manufacturing and purchase of guns. So figuring out where guns come from is a major challenge. “It has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with, in part because of the roadblocks in place,” said Figueroa. “I don’t know if it’s the dealership, money involved in gun sales across the country—there are a whole lot of people not interested in us getting information.” Because this information is so hard to find, the city needs a thorough problem analysis in order to develop a “strong strategy, which is going to require a lot of legislative intervention,” he said.

Part of the department’s plan also involves increasing the response to ShotSpotter, a network of microphones that pick up the sound of gunfire in East and West Oakland. ShotSpotter currently records the sounds, maps the data, and sends a notification to police officers within 20 seconds. Some citizens have raised concerns that, because there is no dedicated staff assigned to the ShotSpotter patrol, guns and casings that could provide useful during an investigation have been left in the streets.

The department has suggested using some of the funds to dedicate a sergeant and four to six officers to spending their weekend shifts responding to these notifications. Figueroa said that 75 percent of the ShotSpotter reports in 2013-2014 came from the area between Fruitvale and San Leandro, so staff will be concentrated in that part of the city. They’ll be deployed during peak ShotSpotter activation times, Saturdays and Sundays between 6 pm and 4 am.

Councilmember Abel Guillén (District 2) questioned why there was $360,000 in the budget for OPD overtime over the course of the two years. “It would make more sense to hire more staff than to pay more overtime,” he said. “You can use more bodies to process more data.”

Saleem Gilmore, a community member who spoke during the public comments session, raised the same concern, asking, “Could we be more critical and challenge ourselves to spend that money more judiciously?”

Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6), the chair of the public safety committee, said she was concerned that the $1 million allocation would turn into “an ongoing obligation, because now we’ve taken a million dollars and hired [dedicated staff members].” The equipment is necessary, she said, but the overall comprehensive strategy was unclear. “People are concerned that we take a lot of actions but aren’t as specific on the impact that we’re try to achieve,” she said. A while ago, the committee had talked about sending a letter to all prospective gun owners, but she asked, had that ever even happened?

Kaplan said that concerns about overtime funding were based on misunderstandings about the differences in the cost to the city between hiring a new officer and letting a current officer work overtime. “Hiring more cops is great, but because this is a two-year pilot program, it takes two years to hire a cop. So it’s reasonable to do [the ShotSpotter program] on overtime. Then, if we decide to commit to it on the long run, you can have permanent positions,” said Kaplan in an interview after the meeting. “The specific concern that was expressed was that overtime costs more than hiring new cops. But it actually doesn’t, because for each new cop you have not only the salary but medical, dental, vision, retirement, uniform, equipment, cars.”

Several members of the public spoke in support of the comprehensive plan. Paula Hawthorne, the co-chair of the Oakland/Alameda County Chapter of the Brady Campaign, a national organization working to reduce gun violence, said that hiring staff to do a gun tracing social network analysis would be a huge help, especially since there are no gun stores in Oakland that sell to the public. This means that all gun sales in Oakland are carried out between individuals.

Aisha Klottey, one of the founders of Attitudinal Healing Connection, a nonprofit that aims to build healthy communities by breaking the cycle of violence, remembered their slain staff member Antonio Ramos, the artist who was gunned down in October while working on a peace mural. “Oakland is a beautiful city, and we need to do something to stop the violence. A million dollars is not a lot of money. I’m sitting here looking at a million dollars right now,” she said, gesturing to the city council before her.

The committee voted to send the police department’s spending proposal to the full council with modifications to indicate it was a pilot program, and to identify that the records specialist positions would be absorbed should the pilot not continue.

“I’m really grateful that we passed this proposal tonight about gun tracing and cracking down on illegal gun dealers, which is particularly important,” said Kaplan. “In order to stop shootings, not only do you have to show up and catch the shooter, but this additional tracing program to shut them down can prevent those illegal guns from getting into people’s hands in the first place.”

One Comment

  1. Hobart Johnson

    A revealing discussion. Among other problems of accurate and relevant information, what stands out for me is the fact that we have no comprehensive public safety plan in Oakland into which this proposal should fit. Thus, like so many other public safety initiatives in Oakland, the proposal is essentially an orphan and will remain such until a comprehensive plan is written and the required policies established.

    Another critical point is that the discussion seems not to reflect that gun data analysis does not have to be performed by high-pay police officers but could be done by technicians who should be significantly less expensive to hire. It has actually been a policy in the City Council to use nonsworn staff for police work wherever possible. I guess our electeds just plain forgot.

    Last, it’s a shame that Paula Hawthorne of the local Brady campaign doesn’t seem to understand how gun sales between individuals are made. They are not made between individuals alone. All gun sales between individuals in Oakland or elsewhere in California are made in a licensed gun shop where individual identification is made, guns are registered, buyers are required to have passed a state exam on gun safety and there is a waiting period. The fact that Oakland has run all gun shops out-of-town means, in part, that there is no local means for legal, and responsible, gun exchanges between individuals.

Comments are closed.