Oakland police struggle to rebuild — using fewer resources
OAKLAND — It was a quiet evening by this city’s standards, and still the police emergency lines were lighting up.
As screams rang out behind her, a caller said her neighbor was being beaten. A woman reported that a front door down the street had been bashed in by a possible intruder. Another said a family member with a knife and supply of methamphetamine was threatening to kill herself.
By 7:30 p.m. there were 40 calls requiring squad cars on the eastern half of town but no officers available to respond. The western district wasn’t faring much better.
So when a resident phoned to report that someone was removing boxes from his driveway, he was told he’d have to wait. “Can’t you just have an officer drive by?’ he asked the 911 dispatcher.
Managing expectations amid a rising crime rate is the latest challenge in California’s most violent city.
The Oakland Police Department is under pressure to satisfy conditions of a decade-old federal court settlement that stemmed from racial profiling and improper use of force. Two of its chiefs have left in as many years. A quarter of its sworn officers have been lost since 2008 to budget cutbacks. Yet it handles about twice the emergency calls per capita as the average law enforcement agency in the state.
As the department works to rebuild its force and earn citizens’ trust, it offers lessons on how deeply the nature of policing changes when resources are cut to the bone.
“There are places in the country right now like Oakland that are at a tipping point,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. “They are really testing how much police make a difference.”
Patrol officers Abdullah Dadgar and Themis Lomis edged their vehicle into a Fruitvale district neighborhood that had suffered a spate of armed robberies.
Two nights earlier, they had responded to 13 in three hours. But before they could set up a stakeout, they were sent to check out a reported burglary in progress.
Oakland is now the nation’s robbery capital, following a 24% jump last year. A 43% surge in burglaries left the lone full-time investigator drowning in 13,000 cases.
By the time Dadgar and Lomis arrived at the scene, witnesses reported that three young men had fled in a white car, the stolen goods stuffed into pillowcases.
“It’s pretty disheartening,” said Dadgar, an 11-year department veteran. “How do you tell someone whose home has just been burglarized, ‘Well, we can’t really do too much about this’?”
With the contraction of Oakland’s force, which fell from 836 officers in mid-2008 to 611 this spring, teams assigned to round up violent-crime suspects and witnesses were disbanded. Many officers on walking beats — the kind of community policing that has been shown to reduce crime — were ordered back into their cars. The vice and traffic enforcement details were eliminated.
In turn, vehicle stops plummeted from 48,000 to 10,000 last year. Arrests dropped 44%, with enforcement of weapons possession, drug possession, prostitution and pandering laws suffering noticeably.
Neighborhoods plagued by burglaries and robberies pushed to keep their “problem-solving officers,” who analyze patterns and causes of crime. But the rising number of homicides and shootings in gang-afflicted areas forced a reshuffling.
It’s not an uncommon story: A fourth of the agencies surveyed nationwide in 2010 by the Major Cities Chiefs Assn. had cut back on traffic, property crime and drug investigations; more than a third had sliced into community policing. The following year, the Justice Department tallied 12,000 law enforcement layoffs and 30,000 unfilled positions.
“Oakland is definitely not alone,” said Josh Ederheimer, acting director of the agency’s office of community-oriented policing services. “We hadn’t seen anything like that since the 1970s.”
A mending economy hasn’t improved matters much: Half of agencies surveyed last year by the Police Executive Research Forum were experiencing cuts. Two-thirds said property crimes were up, and more than one-third reported an increase in violent crimes.
As darkness fell, Dadgar and Lomis parked in an alley and noted the license plate number of a Buick that matched the description of a robbery getaway car. But before they could investigate further, they were responding to an armed robbery call at a Jack in the Box.
“You ever see those cartoons where someone puts their finger in a leaky dike and it squirts out somewhere else?” Dadgar asked, his foot hard on the pedal. “That’s how we feel.”
Hanging along the dingy hallway of Oakland’s crime lab — squeezed onto the sixth floor of police headquarters — are architectural plans drawn up more than a decade ago, after a study determined the operation needed a facility that would take up half a city block.
The lab has a good reputation. Many staffers have master’s degrees and serve on national boards. But insufficient funding has left them buried in work.
Units that analyze DNA, firearms and latent fingerprints are all short-staffed.
Grant-funded technology helps: One DNA robot that came online in March can process 96 sexual-assault samples every eight hours — up from the 17 a day that the staff could handle by hand. But manpower matters.
Firearms unit supervisor Mark Bennett said his three-member team last year scrambled to process evidence in 131 homicide cases and more than 800 assaults. In one recent shootout, eight guns were used and more than 100 rounds fired — requiring extensive testing to try to link weapons to other crimes.
Oakland’s firearms unit can process only about half the requests it gets from homicide and assault investigators monthly, Bennett said. Results sometimes are delivered years after a weapon was fired, and “since guns are passed around, it makes it almost useless.”
Similarly, the latent-print unit has the technology, but not the staff, to run its backlog through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. So homicide cases are prioritized while others often languish.
An evidence technician collected prints in the Jack in the Box heist, but robbery falls next to last on the lab’s to-do list.
“We could really help the citizens of Oakland if we had enough people to just do the work that we have in front of us,” supervisor Debra Galaviz-Flores said.
File folders, each with a victim’s photo taped inside, cover Officer Jason Andersen’s desk. As with other homicide detectives, his open caseload averages about 16 — up from 2009’s department average of seven.
Oakland has more than three dozen internal affairs personnel, a product of the court settlement, more than those assigned to violent crime. Each of the homicide division’s five two-person teams is on call for a week at a time, 24/7.
“The one thing we do not get a lot of [in homicides] is good hard physical evidence,” Anderson said. So information from witnesses or informants is key.
Killings in this city of 400,000 once spurred an undercover team to conduct drug-buy operations nearby and haul in potential witnesses for a chat. “More cases were solved then,” Andersen said, “because of the sheer number of interviews.”
He turned to an officer coming off graveyard and heading into his second overtime shift. He had a rapport with a potential witness, and Andersen pleaded with him to find her.
“It just boils down to everybody’s stretched thin,” he said wearily. “That’s kind of where we’re at.”
On a spring morning, Oakland’s Scottish Rite Center filled with proud families for the first academy graduation in four years.
“Allan. Ashford. Belligan.” As 38 names were read, each recruit responded with a forceful: “Here, sir!”
The class was the first of six the city hopes to fund by the summer of 2015. Still, that will bring the sworn force to 700 at most — short of the 1,000 that former Chief Howard Jordan, who just stepped down for medical reasons, said the department needs.
With pension and other costs soaring, experts nationwide predict some cuts likely are here to stay, so policing must get smarter.
To that end, consultants — including former LAPD Chief William Bratton — are helping Oakland to split its department into five districts, each with its own captain and set of investigators. They also are working to reassign officers to neighborhoods while resolving more calls online and by phone.
But even more than reorganization, policing experts said, what really is needed is political will.
When Bratton took charge in 2002, the LAPD was struggling with high crime and a federal consent decree, UC Berkeley criminal-justice expert Franklin Zimring recently told the Oakland City Council. Now community trust is up, and L.A.'s crime reduction success is “second only to New York.” With 10 times Oakland’s population, L.A. saw about 300 homicides in each of the last few years, compared with Oakland’s 2012 tally of 131.
Bratton got most of the resources he sought to expand the LAPD. But with a history of divisive city politics and a department leadership in flux, Oakland faces challenges in attempting a similar turnaround.
“How do we persuade voters to make the investment?” Councilwoman Libby Schaaf asked during a recent public appearance. “What’s it going to take?”
As she addressed the crowd, a young woman was shot to death in her car in North Oakland. Her 4-year-old was in the back seat.
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