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Oakland welcomes 34 badly needed new police officers

The graduating members of the 169th Basic Academy bring the number of officers on the city force to 680

By Henry Lee
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland Police Department saw its ranks grow Thursday by 34, bringing a much-needed infusion of new officers to patrol the streets.

The graduating members of the 169th Basic Academy bring to 680 the number of officers on the city force, bolstering a department that has struggled to battle crime while decimated by cuts.

The new officers — some of whom speak second languages that include Spanish, Tagalog, Burmese, German French and Danish — must still undergo four months of field training while paired with veteran officers.

Mayor Jean Quan welcomed the graduates at a ceremony at the Scottish Rite Center at the edge of Lake Merritt. She noted it was her fourth academy to graduate in the past three years, following four years with no academies.

It was also the first academy class under Police Chief Sean Whent, though he had welcomed previous new officers as the interim chief.
The academy started six months ago with 55 recruits. By losing 21 before graduation, it had a washout rate well above the typical 20 percent, officials said.

“Some academies you’ll see the numbers go up or the numbers go down as far as success and completion, but at the end of the day, we want the best of the best, and we want to provide the city of Oakland with the best candidate,” said Officer Johnna Watson, a department spokeswoman.

The Oakland academy can be grueling, both physically and academically, Watson said.

“Some people realize it’s not for them,” she said. “Some people don’t pass each of the testing phases. It’s an extremely, very intense, high-pressured environment where you have to perform at 100 percent every single day.”

The city, which has one of the nation’s most understaffed police departments, wants at least 700 officers by 2015. The department had an all-time high of 832 officers in 2008.

Police hope the new officers will help offset attrition from officers who move on or retire.

The city has started an aggressive campaign to recruit new officers, spreading the word on social media and emblazoning its downtown headquarters building with a large sign encouraging people to sign up.

The city received grants from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009, 2011 and last year that funded a total of 76 officers.

The 170th academy has already started and is set to graduate on Halloween, while the 171st academy will begin in September.

An additional 15 recruits are attending the Alameda County sheriff’s academy and will graduate in September. A lateral academy, designed for current officers who want to transfer to Oakland, is scheduled soon.

Copyright 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle