Undercurrents: More Thoughts on Staffing of Oakland Police Department

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

I thought that last week’s column had completed my discussion of the “Safe Streets And Neighborhoods Act of 2008”—the proposed ballot initiative that would increase Oakland’s police force by 272 officers to a total of 1075—and Mayor Ron Dellums’ counter-proposal of a property tax increase initiative to increase OPD’s strength by 50 to 803.  

However, now comes the May 25 Matier & Ross item in the San Francisco Chronicle concerning the issue, and an interesting comment by Dellums Chief of Staff David Chai, and an addendum is clearly in order. 

The Matier & Ross column item revealed that when the Safe Streets initiative began circulating in petition form in the hopes of qualifying for the November ballot, the immediate result was “a meeting between Dellums, Police Chief Wayne Tucker and City Council budget committee Chairwoman Jean Quan, who was worried the measure would bankrupt the city,” and shortly thereafter, the mayor went public with his own idea of a counterproposal of a 50-police increase property tax initiative. 

“Dellums chief of staff David Chai told us,” Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross wrote, “the mayor had to get something going because ‘we couldn’t just let one side dictate the conversation.’ ” 

That sounds like something one of the mayor’s critics or opponents might say, rather than someone who has—supposedly—been closely involved in the Dellums administration. 

While one might not like what Mr. Dellums has been saying—or doing—about public safety over the course of the 17 months of his administration, it is difficult to argue, with any credibility, that the mayor has not been part of the conversation. As we detailed in last week’s column, Oakland—under the Dellums administration—is in the midst of a major restructuring of our police resources, including the division of the city into three geographical patrol units, the move to the 12-hour day, the signing of a new police contract, and, of course, the projected increase to 803 full strength. The signing of the new police contract is especially noteworthy, as it broke the Oakland Police Officers Association’s stubborn opposition to the civilianization of certain OPD positions currently being staffed by uniformed police officers. In lay terms, that means that OPD will be able to hire non-sworn police officers to work some of its desk jobs and administrative jobs, freeing up uniformed police for street patrol and investigative work—where the public wants them—and stretching the effectiveness of the authorized 803 uniformed strength. In addition, the Dellums administration has moved forward with many of the promised reforms in the area of preventing crime and violence before it begins, including, among other things, the initiation of a jobs program for formerly incarcerated persons through newly hired Reentry Employment Specialist Isaac Taggart (the first “Accessing Oakland Jobs” employment fair under this program was held in April, and Taggart is moving forward with efforts to prevent barriers to city employment for the formerly incarcerated), and the hiring of 20 violence prevention outreach workers through the Department of Human Services to provide street-level intervention services to individuals at high-risk of getting into—or continuing with—violent street life. 

That’s a solid—and defensible—program that needs some time to jell and see if it makes a dent in Oakland’s public safety and violence problems. 

Meanwhile, it is perfectly proper—though not necessarily advisable, but we’ll get to that in a moment—for the Dellums administration to advance the hiring of 50 more police above the current 803 limit to advance the mayor’s public safety initiatives. However, for the mayor’s chief of staff to imply to Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross that the mayor has not been part of Oakland’s public safety conversation is, well, oddly ill-informed about the administration’s own programs and actions in this area. 

But let’s get to the viability of the proposed 50-police increase property tax initiative itself. 

Choosing an increase of 50 may go back to the position of OPD Chief Wayne Tucker—stated on several occasions—that if the city wants to maintain a constant patrol strength of 803, we need to authorize 50 police officers above that number in the budget. Mr. Tucker’s reasoning has a sound administrative basis. While Dellums administration and Police Department officials are confident that the city will reach Mr. Dellums’ goal of 803 hired patrol officers by the end of 2008, that number can only be reached briefly, for a month or two, at best. Veteran officers are retiring at the rate of 5 or so per month, and so the numbers of hired officers will immediately begin to drop, with a significant lag time before they can be brought back up, again, to full strength. Police cannot simply be hired off the street and put into uniform and on the street again. They have to be trained in full police procedures, if they have never been officers before, and then, for all recruits whether veteran or not, in the Oakland Municipal Code and OPD procedures. That training procedure takes time. In addition, it’s my understanding that the city cannot even authorize a new round of police academies until OPD reaches a level of 25 officers under the 803 authorized strength. That means a significant lag time between the time the city starts dropping below 803 uniformed officers and when the academy graduates are finally hired to bring the department back up to full strength. The actual OPD numbers will always fluctuate, reaching 803 as the high point, dropping to some number below, and then, eventually, returning to 803, only to repeat the cycle again. 

Mr. Tucker’s theory—and, as I said, it has a sound administrative basis—is that if you want to maintain an actual police strength of 803, you have to authorize approximately 50 more. Under this scenario, 853 would be the high-water mark, which would only be reached for brief periods, but the normal attrition rates and lag time in recruitment and training would not drop the actual strength below 800. 

But what is administratively sound is not necessarily politically adviseable. 

There is no magic to the number 803, it is only a result of the calculations of the Measure Y authors as to how high a property tax increase Oakland voters would support. 803 police has become a community rallying cry and a potent political slogan only because that’s the authorized strength we ended up with after passing Measure Y in 2004. If Oakland were to pass a tax initiative increasing the authorized strength to 853, thus ensuring that 803 could be consistently reached, the number 803 would immediately lose its current political potency and would be quickly forgotten, and the citizens who are now demanding that Oakland hire the authorized 803 would only certainly begin to demand that Oakland hired the newly-authorized 853. If Mr. Tucker believes he needs a constant 800 police to address Oakland’s crime and violence problem, authorizing 50 above that is the right way to go. But if Mr. Tucker and Mr. Dellums are trying to stave off political demands for more police by this proposal, I’m afraid they’ll find they’ve gotten themselves in an endless loop of escalating demands. 

And that’s even if the Dellums administration could get a 50-police-increase property tax initiative passed. 

The people behind the “Safe Streets And Neighborhoods Act of 2008”— PG&E, developers John Protopappas and Mike Ghielmetti, and community activists Greg McConnell and Marcus Johnson with Larry Tramutola and John Whitehurst as hired political consultants, according to Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross—should certainly be commended for their cleverness. Their proposed initiative calls for the hiring of 272 more police, but is decidedly vague on how those extra police would be paid for, saying only, as we reported last week, that “the City Council is empowered to adopt ordinances necessary to effectuate the purpose of this section.” My guess is that, if the Safe Streets initiative makes it to the November ballot, it has a chance of passage. It would only need a simply 50 percent plus one majority, and it would play on that disturbing human tendency to believe that if the fine print details of how something is supposed to be paid for is not explicitly spelled out, somehow there’s a chance that we might be able to skip having to pay for it. 

The 50 police increase property tax initiative being floated by the Dellums administration does not have those advantages. The funding mechanism would be in plain sight for every voter to see. And because that funding mechanism would involve a property tax increase, the proposed measure would require a two-thirds approval for passage. 

That’s a tough hurdle to cross in these post-Measure Y days. 

Since the passage of Measure Y in 2004 with roughly three percentage points to spare for the two-thirds needed (69.6 to 30.4) there has been a growing disquiet over the failure of the city to reach the 803 police strength called for in the measure. That disquiet escalated during the fight over Mr. Dellums’ police augmentation plan (the plan intended to carry out his goal to reach 803 hired police), in which the escalated police hiring process was financed with Measure Y funds. Some citizens—including the chair of the Measure Y Oversight Committee—charged the city with “raiding” the Measure Y funds. 

I don’t agree with those charges, and I think Mr. Dellums’ police augmentation strategy was the only way to break the police hiring logjam and fully staff the police, including all of the 63 Measure Y problem-solving officer positions. But that’s not the point. During the debate over Mr. Dellums’ augmentation plan, many citizens said they had lost trust with the City on this issue, regretted their previous votes in favor of Measure Y, and vowed that they would not support such a tax measure again. History has shown us that doesn’t take much organized opposition to defeat a measure needing a two-thirds majority for passage. 

Mr. Dellums’ proposed 50-police-increase property tax initiative would fly right in the teeth of those political winds. 

If 50 more police are necessary at this time for the Dellums Administration to move forward with its public safety proposals and reforms, then they should show courage and move forward with it, just as the mayor showed courage last January in promising to fully staff the 803 authorized police positions by the end of this year. But if it is a political calculation designed to stave off the Safe Streets initiative, the folks on the third floor at Oakland City Hall might want to get out their calculators again. This idea needs a little retinkering.