Oakland City Council votes to add more officers to quell spike in violent crime

Oakland will have two more police academies over the next two fiscal years to hire more sworn officers into the Oakland Police Department, the Oakland City Council voted on Tuesday evening.

The hiring would allow the city to meet the requirements of Measure Z, a parcel tax approved by voters in 2014, which helps funds other city services such fire and violence prevention. It will also add 60 more officers to the force.

Currently, the city is budgeted to have 737 officers but with officers resigning or retiring at a faster clip than expected, the department has struggled to fill positions and is down to 676 sworn officers.

Six councilmembers -- Nikki Fortunato Bas, Dan Kalb, Rebecca Kaplan, Treva Reid, Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao -- voted in favor. Councilmember Noel Gallo voted no and Councilmember Carroll Fife abstained.

Gallo, who has often sided with police, voted against the plan, saying that past attempts to hire experienced officers have put the city "in trouble" and stuck them with officers who had problematic records.

"We're making reference to taking money from other departments," he said at the meeting. "The challenges we're facing in the city of Oakland, at least in the neighborhood I live in, in East Oakland, it is a complete blight and mess, and we need to deal with the problem we have. And certainly it's not a police officer standing on every corner that solves that problem."

The vote overall is meant to address the high levels of violent crime in Oakland but was denounced by the Anti-Police Terror Project.

Co-founder Cat Brooks had argued that more officers aren't needed to do jobs such as towing cars, and that there are plenty of officers who could be deployed if the department was better managed. 

Brooks tweeted to the councilmembers who voted yes: "Unfortunately when we tell (the councilmembers) I told u so in a year - it will be because Black/brown ppl have continued to die, crime remained the same or gotten worse, police abuses will be up & more of our people will be in jails/prison." 

But many were happy with the extra staffing. 

Mayor Libby Schaaf thanked the six councilmembers who voted in favor of the hiring. She said the action will give the city the chance to "carry out a holistic vision of public safety" after a recent surge in crime.

"Our residents spoke up today and their voices were heard. They spoke up for a comprehensive approach to public safety -- one that includes prevention, intervention, and addressing crime's root causes, as well as an adequately staffed police department," Schaaf said in a statement.    

The total cost for the academies and hiring efforts over the two-year budget cycle is estimated to be about $11 million, city memos state. According city administrator Ed Reiskin, the city will get those funds from savings within the police department from past academy classes being smaller than planned, as well as salary savings from positions across the city not being filled as quickly as expected.

The council postponed another idea proposed by Councilmember Sheng Thao, which would offer officers from other departments $50,000 signing bonuses to come to Oakland and by providing $20,000 bonuses to city residents who enter and graduate from police academies that train them to become officers. 

The details of that proposal will be discussed at a Dec. 21 council meeting. Meanwhile, the city will use an outside recruiting agency to recruit experienced officers to the force. 

"Waiting until 2023 for new recruits to finish training will not fill the vacancies we have now," Thao said in a statement after the vote.

Thao had originally voted against funding more police academies, but she has since changed her mind. She is also running for mayor. 

Researchers have long tried to tackle the question about whether more police translate to safer communities. Benjamin Hansen is an economics professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in researching crime.

He co-authored a recent study that found both sides in the debate may be correct.

"We found that police reduced homicides overall and in the absolute counts that those reductions in homicides were roughly split between white and black civilians," Hansen said.

He said those homicide reductions are significantly larger per-capita in communities of color.

But at the same time, Hansen said he and his colleagues’ looked at communities with more police and found other troubling data.

"When we looked at arrest patterns for more minor crimes – what we might consider quality of life arrests – things like noise violations, things like possession of marijuana, we saw there was a large increase in those arrests," he said.

The effect, he said, erodes the sense of police legitimacy in the very communities police are tasked with protecting. And more distrust of the police makes it harder to reduce violence in the long-term.

Bay City News contributed to this report.