Bobby White, 12/15/11
Strained by the Occupy Oakland movement, the city’s police department is struggling to provide adequate services, and morale has sunk to its lowest level in years, says a police-union representative.
“It’s rough being an Oakland cop,” says Barry Donelan, vice president of the Oakland police union and a 10-year police officer. “We’re committed to servicing the community but morale is very low now.”
Mr. Donelan says things went downhill for the police when the Occupy Oakland movement began in late October. The Oakland Police Department devoted a third of its 645 officers to policing the demonstrators, leaving only two-thirds of the force to respond to emergency calls beyond the protest area, he says.
Mr. Donelan says this meant weeks of 12-to-14-hour shifts for many officers and numerous emergency calls going unanswered for lack of available police officers. Police officers have received overtime pay for this extra work.
The Oakland Police Department confirms the stretched force hasn’t been able to respond to all emergency calls.
Asked about understaffing and declining morale, Johnna Watson, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department, said, “With such limited resources, it’s certainly had an effect on how we do our jobs.” She said managing the Occupy encampment and addressing high crime in the city has taxed the department and placed a heavy burden on officers.
Other police officers, who declined to be identified for publication, say morale has been damaged by lackluster public support from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, and criticism from local and national media figures of some of the tactics used in a raid of the Occupy encampment in October. The mayor’s office declined to answer questions on this matter.
Mayor Quan has had a tempestuous relationship with the department, publicly trading barbs with the police union during contract negotiations earlier this year and over strategy concerning Occupy Oakland.
The fallout from the Occupy movement is the latest blow to this city’s police force. For the past two years, the pay and benefits of Oakland police officers have been reduced and there have been layoffs. The department says it now has 645 sworn officers, down from about 800 in late 2008.
Oakland city manager Deanna Santana says she realizes the police department is under a heavy strain. Ms. Santana says she is working to improve conditions for the OPD but budget constraints limit what she can do. She adds that she regrets the missed emergency calls.
“I value my police officers and what they have been through is very difficult,” Ms. Santana says. “I have apologized to some of my officers for some of the missteps and I’m committed to improving conditions for them. We have to find a way to get through what all consider unsustainable.”
Adding to the recent turmoil, police chief Anthony Batts resigned in October, citing too many layers of oversight and little support from city leaders for policing tactics such as youth curfews and not allowing suspected gang members to congregate.
The Oakland Police Department is preparing for a hearing in January before U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, which could determine if Oakland’s police force is to be placed under federal control.
The hearing comes after the city agreed to have federal monitors observe the department, a move stemming from the settlement of a police-brutality and corruption case in 2002. The settlement requires the OPD to adhere to a checklist of conduct codes. In October, Judge Henderson issued an order threatening a federal takeover of the OPD if reforms weren’t hastened—an unprecedented move for a police department, according to the Department of Justice.
Ms. Watson, the police spokeswoman, and Mr. Donelan, the union vice president, declined to comment on the hearing with Judge Henderson.
“I don’t see anything positive at all happening in Oakland,” says William Bratton, former police chief of New York City and Los Angeles and now chairman of Kroll Inc, a global risk assessment firm. He isn’t advising either the police union or the city of Oakland. “It’s a perfect storm of bad: too much oversight, not enough support from city leaders, too few officers,” Mr. Bratton says.
In some neighborhoods, community leaders say they have seen the ripple effects of an understaffed police force and declining police morale. In the Prescott neighborhood in West Oakland, where recently six people were injured and a toddler killed in a shootout, locals say officers were barely present during Occupy and still don’t always respond to emergency calls.
“The police department is in a very tough position because over the last few years there has not been much stability,” says Marcus Johnson, a community leader in the Prescott neighborhood. The former mechanical engineer also serves on the city’s Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, a group that operates as a liaison between neighborhoods and the OPD.
“As a citizen, how can you feel safe when you have such turnover and uncertainty in the police department,” Mr. Johnson said.
Ms. Watson says she understands residents’ concerns and the department is working to address them but with limited resources and staffing “we can only do so much.”
Judge Henderson, meanwhile, who has been keeping tabs on the Oakland department since the 2002 settlement of the police corruption case, said in October that a federal takeover of the OPD “remains a potential remedy that may be needed to finally achieve the reforms in a reasonable period.” He declined to comment for this article.
Rocky Lucia, an attorney representing the OPD union, says it is unclear how Judge Henderson will view the handling of the Occupy movement by the police department. But Mr. Lucia adds that he hopes the judge takes into consideration the many issues OPD has had to deal with.