As Oakland welcomed 30 much-needed new police officers to the ranks Friday, Chief Wayne Tucker had sobering news.
The department is unable to meet its projection that it would be fully staffed at 803 officers this year, he told The Chronicle. Instead, an officer deficit is likely through 2008, he said.
Tucker said he had underestimated the number of officer retirements, which now are occurring at a rate of more than five per month. He also cited a lack of senior officers to train new recruits in the field.
With the new officers who graduated from the police academy Friday at a ceremony at the Scottish Rite Center on Lake Merritt, the city will have 728 sworn officers, the highest number the department has been able to achieve since last year, when the city put a full-court press on its recruiting drive, Tucker said.
“We’ve got a very strong recruiting effort in the city,” Tucker said, after pinning badges on the 30 eager officers, many of whom were joined in celebration by relatives and friends. “The numbers are there for us. We don’t have a problem recruiting. … We underestimated the number of disability retirements and other officer retirements.”
Tucker noted that the department’s struggle to fill vacancies is not unique. San Francisco is down roughly 300 officers from its minimum-strength goal of 1,971, and law enforcement agencies nationwide are facing similar staffing shortages.
Many departments are competing with each other as well as the military and the private sector, which are able to offer better salary and benefit packages, experts say. Oakland’s starting officer pay of $69,000 is among the highest in the state.
Part of the problem is the department’s selectiveness. Of the hundreds of candidates who apply for a police job, only 3 percent successfully complete the background checks and physical and academic tests to get hired, Tucker said.
Another problem for the violence-plagued city surfaced Friday when new Mayor Ron Dellums, who spoke at the 159th Basic Academy graduation, told The Chronicle that his plans for crime-fighting reform, including community policing, have been stalled by contract negotiations with the police union.
Dellums has said that getting officers out of their cars to build relationships and trust in neighborhoods is key to solving Oakland’s crime problems.
“I’m hoping everybody involved will understand that it’s in everyone’s enlightened self-interest and more importantly to the self-interest of the residents of Oakland that these labor matters get resolved as quickly as possible.”
“One way or the other, the buck stops here,” he said. “We’ve got to make some judgments, and we’ve got to move on. … The extent to which we’re collaborative and cooperative and communicative is the extent to which I think we deal with this issue of rising crime and violence in Oakland.”
Rocky Lucia, lawyer for the Oakland Police Officers Association, which is negotiating the contract that expired June 30, disagreed with the mayor.
Lucia said the union and the majority of officers support community policing, but that there aren’t enough bodies to put on foot patrols. Lucia said that even when the department reaches 803 officers, it won’t be enough. He suggested that the city needed 300 additional officers.
“The citizens of Oakland are suffering because we don’t have that many bodies,” Lucia said. “The problems we’re facing are due to a lack of uniforms. To blame it on a contract is a ruse, a red herring.”
Dellums also said he is seeking federal help to try to get more officers on the street at a time when violence in Oakland threatens to spiral out of control.
He said he is working with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, to secure federal funds to help new police officers, firefighters and teachers to afford housing in Oakland.
Homicides in Oakland last year reached their highest level in a decade, and many residents have become increasingly vocal about slow police responses to non-life-threatening crimes such as assaults and burglaries.