Column: Undercurrents: Extreme Idea: Look to Oakland for Police Recruits By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday March 03, 2006

Extremis malis extrema remedia—from the Latin: literally “extreme remedies for extreme ills,” or the more familiar “desperate times call for desperate measures.” 


Whether or not we need to adopt desperate measures, there is no doubt that Oakland is going through some desperate times, at least in the area of street violence. 

On Sunday afternoon, 17-year-old Brian Champaco of San Leandro was shot and killed while riding with his friends in a van near the corner of 77th Avenue and Rudsdale, a location that, if you were familiar with East Oakland, you would know immediately as one of the city’s longstanding sidewalk drug markets, one of the ones that the Oakland Police Department don’t seem to be able to shut down. Don’t know why Mr. Champaco and his friends were riding around in that particular area, but whatever the case, Mr. Champaco became the 19th person murdered in the city of Oakland in the first two months of the year. 

If one adds that 19 in two months to the 33 murders that occurred in the city during the last three months of 2005, you would end up with 125 murders in a year if such a monthly rate continued for 12 months. That would not be quite as high as the ghastly days of the early ‘90s, when the city was averaging a little over 150 murders. But 125 murders—if that trend held—would be the highest rate in Oakland in 10 years, an indication that the situation on many of our streets is getting worse and in danger of spiraling out of control again. 

In 2004, in part because city and police officials insisted that the Oakland Police Department was understaffed and could not stem the rising homicide and violent crime rate, Oakland voters passed Measure Y. Among other things, that measure authorized the funding of 63 new police officer positions for specific violence-prevention activities. Given what we were told by city and police officials during the Measure Y campaign, Oakland citizens expected that after a reasonable time the new police officers would be hired, trained, and put out on the streets, with an immediate impact on violent crime. 

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. 

In an online report on implementation of Measure Y, the “we need more police on the street” citizens group called the Oakland Residents For Peaceful Neighborhoods ( says that the city actually has significantly fewer police officers than when the measure was passed more than a year ago. According to ORFPN’s report, Oakland had 734 police officers at the time Measure Y was written, but that number had dropped to 703 by the end of February, even though the city has been collecting Measure Y taxes for a year. This drop in the police rolls comes despite the fact, according to the San Francisco Chronicle this week, that rookies entering the Oakland Police Department “earn $62,000 a year, a figure that rises to $89,000 after being on the force three years.” In addition, a generous union contract allows officers to retire at age 50 at 3 percent of their highest base salary for each year they work (meaning that a police officer who works for 25 years, for example, gets 75 percent of his or her best paycheck, every month, as a retirement check). You can’t beat that with a stick. 

So why is Oakland police staffing down when there is more money to pay for new police, and salaries and retirement perks are so generous?  

The Chronicle suggests in its article this week that it’s “not a shortage of money, but a shortage of applicants that is keeping Oakland from hiring more police officers under Measure Y,” and that while police departments across the country are having problems recruiting new police officers, “the problem is exacerbated in Oakland by steep housing prices and intense competition from rival law enforcement agencies and the military.” Oakland City Manager Deborah Edgerly’s recently released 55-page report on the Status of Measure Y also blames the police shortage on the combination of a high failure rate of Oakland recruits at the police academy as well as a high percentage of retirements by current police officers. 

It’s also understood that with its high violent crime rate and tough neighborhoods, Oakland is not as attractive a place for new police officers to work in as, say, Walnut Creek or Palo Alto. 

Ms. Edgerly gives several pages of suggestions as to how to increase the number of Oakland police recruits. She includes what would appear to be the standard thowaway line of “recruitment of minorities and women.” How such recruitment would be different from the present is not spelled out in the 55 pages, but we’ll get to that, in a moment. 

One of Ms. Edgerly’s more detailed suggestions is that the city begin “expansion of the geographical [Oakland Police Department] recruiting area outside of the nine Bay Area counties” to include Southern California, Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona. And the San Francisco Chronicle article reports that “another avenue Oakland is considering is loosening the guidelines dictating where applicants live. Right now, applicants must reside within about a five-mile radius of the city limits. Expanding that zone would enable officers to live in, say, Antioch, where homes are cheaper.” 

“I lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” my pastor used to intone, quoting from Psalm 121:1, “from whence cometh my help.” 

Perhaps we might turn our eyes in a different direction for a path out of these difficulties. Oakland is packed with young people—many of them African-American or Latino—who would dearly like to walk in the door of a new job at $62,000 a year and who would have no trouble meeting the five-mile radius residency clause because, after all, they already live within the city limits. 

But tapping that black and Latino labor pool resource inside Oakland would require more imagination, commitment, and courage than the one-line “recruitment of minorities and women” included in the city manager’s Measure Y report. 

In her report, Ms. Edgerly quotes a December, 2005 New York Times article as saying that “in a generation’s time, the job of an American police officer, previously among the most sought-after by people with little college background, has become one that in many communities now goes begging.” The Times article adds that “those who might be attracted to [police work] are frequently lured instead by aggressive counteroffers from the military.” 

We know, in fact, that the military is frantically seeking out recruits these days in the inner cities—Oakland included, maybe Oakland especially—trolling schools and parks and shopping centers and other locations where young people congregate. You literally have to fight the military recruiters off in some locations. To put a 2006 spin on an old 1960s rhetorical question: If we can trust a kid with a rifle in his hand to patrol Mosul in the uniform of the United States Marine Corp, why can’t that same kid be trusted to carry a handgun and patrol Market Street in the uniform of the Oakland Police Department? But when was the last time you saw a similar aggressive recruitment activity by the Oakland Police Department in the neighborhoods where the kids sag and spit rhymes and tag the walls? 

To recruit in Oakland’s hardcore neighborhoods would require a significant change in the character of the Oakland Police Department. A police-community partnership would have to develop that would have to go beyond the setting up of a few neighborhood watch groups among the folks of my generation (fifties and above). The Oakland Police Department would have to cease giving the appearance of a peacekeeping force in a tropical country, outsiders who mostly roll through our streets in their patrol cars for several hours fighting crime, and then return to their homes beyond the hills when their shifts are over, with little or no contact with our community other than their law-enforcement activities. The Oakland Police Department would have to become something that is more of Oakland rather than merely in Oakland, the truest definition of “community policing.” To many, such a suggested solution to Oakland’s police staffing problem—and Oakland’s violent crime problem—will seem extreme. 

Extremis malis. Extrema remedia. So it is said.