Oakland hit two grim milestones this week: the most homicides in a year since 2006 and the lowest police staffing level since 2014.
Getting to this tragic point has been years in the making as the city has allowed the number of sworn positions to languish at inadequate levels.
Then earlier this year the hard-left City Council majority exacerbated an already bad situation by flattening the department’s budget and rebuffing Mayor Libby Schaaf’s plea to train enough cops to stop further staffing erosion.
While the council majority eventually relented on the training academies, the damage was done as officers, seeing the lack of support at the top, left the department at rates much higher than anyone had anticipated.
The resulting staffing shortage will take years to recover from. Projections through June 2023 show no sign of the city being able to train and hire enough police fast enough to offset attrition and reach reasonable staffing levels. Oakland for years has needed more officers on the street. And it needs more — a lot more — today than ever before.
Fortunately, the City Council never followed through on last year’s absurd threat to cut the police budget by 50%. Instead, what we’re witnessing is a slow squeeze as crime soars.
Police reform advocates are correct that bad cops, of which Oakland has historically had more than its share, must be stripped of their authority, and funding for mental health and violence-prevention strategies must be part of any solution. But those should be supplements to, not substitutes for, keeping enough officers on the streets.
Oakland is like many cities statewide and nationally during the pandemic that have experienced rising violent-crime rates. And some other Bay Area cities, most notably San Jose, also struggle with substandard numbers of officers.
But Oakland, unlike most, has been struggling with both severe understaffing and exceptionally high crime rates for years. On a per-capita basis of cities with 100,000 or more people, violent crime in Oakland ranked between the ninth and 16th worst in the nation each year from 2015-19. During that same period, Oakland had the lowest ratio of sworn officers to violent crime in the nation.
To reach the statewide staffing average, measured by the Public Policy Institute of California, of 235 cops per 100,000 population, Oakland would need 1,048 sworn officers. That would be 56% more cops than they had Tuesday, when the level dropped to 671.
This staffing squeeze has been going on for a decade. The city’s sworn personnel, which had hit a peak of 830 in 2009, plummeted to 613 during the aftermath of the Great Recession and crawled back above 700 in 2016. But it never got back over 750 before the pandemic struck.
Meanwhile, the dead-body count in the city has been staggering. The city recorded its 132nd homicide Tuesday, surpassing the number from nine years ago. 2021 is now the worst year since Oakland logged 148 homicides in 2006.
That’s only part of the story of crime on the streets of Oakland. Assaults with firearms are up 25% over last year. Shootings into occupied homes are up 32%. Robberies with firearms are up 47%. Carjackings are up 80%.
While poorer neighborhoods are hardest hit, the crime is spread throughout the city. And, as Police Chief Leronne Armstrong explained earlier this year, if your car is stolen, your house is burgled or you’re robbed or assaulted in Oakland and the suspect is no longer on the scene, it often takes 8-10 hours or more, depending on the day, for a cop to show up.
Unexpected attrition rate
When Mayor Schaaf in the spring presented her budget for fiscal years 2021-23, she warned that the city needed to budget and plan for six training academies over the two-year period. But the council majority passed a budget with only four academies.
The pared-back budget was approved by council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and councilmembers Carroll Fife, Dan Kalb, Noel Gallo, Rebecca Kaplan and Sheng Thao. Councilmembers Treva Reid and Loren Taylor wisely voted against it.
Then things got worse than anyone had predicted. Staffing a police department involves forecasting attrition — the number of officers who quit, retire or are fired — and balancing it against the number of new officers that can be trained in the department’s academies.
The attrition rate has been growing faster than anticipated in part because of displeasure with City Council leadership and the fact that academies have produced fewer graduates than normal, partly because recruitment has been tough during the pandemic.
As crime rates increased and the police force continued to shrink, residents became more concerned about crime in their city. Two-thirds of them said they felt less safe in the city than they did two years ago, according to an October survey commissioned by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.
In September, as Thao prepared to announce her campaign for mayor in next year’s election, she and other members of the council majority reversed some of the damage from their earlier budget decisions. The council approved adding another academy for the police department, and this month it approved adding two more.
That brought the total number of academies for the two-year budget cycle to seven. But since one of those academies was to make up for an earlier one that was under enrolled, the practical effect was the equivalent of six academies for the two-year period, which is what Schaaf had originally sought.
The council action this month was further driven by the threat of losing special funding for the police department. That’s because the Measure Z public safety tax approved by voters in 2014 conditioned the money on a minimum of 678 officers. It was a ridiculously low staffing level then, and it’s even more absurd now with seven more years of population growth.
Yet the city has fallen below even that. An academy class graduation on Dec. 23 should allow Oakland to climb above the Measure Z threshold by adding 26 officers to the count, even though they won’t complete field training until May 14. But if current attrition levels continue, even with the planned academies, the city will struggle to maintain 700 officers for at least the next year.
How does the council majority justify this? They repeatedly claim that they increased funding for the police department. In a press release in July, council President Fortunato Bas claimed the increase in the current 2021-23 budget was $38.5 million, or 6%, more than the prior two-year budget. That’s grossly misleading, but the number continues to be echoed in news reports.
To make her calculation, Fortunato Bas compared budgeted numbers for the new spending plan to the same for the prior. But everyone knew that past police department budgets were unrealistic because they repeatedly understated overtime for the short-staffed force.
At the urging of the city auditor, the new budget proposed by Schaaf and used as the starting point for the council-approved spending plan was an attempt to accurately include the overtime. So of course it reflected a significant increase when comparing budgeted amount to budgeted amount.
In fact, a comparison of actual police department spending in the 2019-21 budget to budgeted amount for 2021-23, including the changes made by the council this month, shows a $7.5 million, 1%, increase. Those are the numbers that represent reality. Essentially, the city police budget is flat at a time when it’s grossly understaffed.
What we’re witnessing is not an immediate defunding of the department but rather a steady squeeze that has too often left residents to fend for themselves.