Proposal to add Oakland police academies reignites debate over financing public safety

The proposal comes three months after the city decided to give the police department less money

By Annie Sciacca
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — Less than three months after it decided to give the police department less money than what the mayor had proposed, the Oakland City Council is wading into a new debate about whether more officers are needed to tackle this year's surge of gun violence.

District 4 City Councilmember Sheng Thao, who was among the council majority who shot down Mayor Libby Schaaf's proposal, created a stir last week when she announced a plan to add two more police academies than the four scheduled over the next couple of years to boost the number of officers on the streets.

New Oakland police officers graduate from the police academy on May 28, 2021.
New Oakland police officers graduate from the police academy on May 28, 2021. (Oakland Police Department Recruiting)

"I think Oakland needs more and better policing," Thao said in an interview. Before they can hit Oakland's streets, police officers must undergo rigorous training for 27 weeks at the police academies.

Thao's proposal, which will likely be considered at the Sept. 21 council meeting, thrusts the city right back into the middle of a contentious debate about how to fund public safety and what to do with a police department that has regularly overspent its budget.

Thao insists she isn't doing an about-face since the June budget vote.

"On the dais, I stated that the current proposal at that time was premature and that I would work with the police chief to bring it back when it was more fleshed out," she said.

Thao proposes to pay for one of the extra academies from expenses the police department saved by training far fewer than the 45 officers per class it was supposed to graduate in each of the past two academies. Each academy costs between $3.4 million and $3.7 million.

She said the other academy can be funded at least in part from the police department's overtime budget. Adding to the department's 698 sworn officers should help reduce the need for overtime spending in the future, Thao said.

At a time when homicides and other gun-violence crimes are still on the rise — 91 people have been killed in Oakland so far this year as of Monday afternoon — city officials have faced mounting pressure to do something.

In a press release last week, police union president Barry Donelan linked the council to the violence. He said "the ongoing vilification of Oakland Police Officers by City Council Members has helped drive attrition within the police department" and noted that the number of officers had fallen to below 700 for the first time in years.

"On average, the police department loses ten officers a month, mainly to other agencies where their service is valued, unlike Oakland," he said.

The department is authorized to have 737 officers, not including 55 frozen positions.

Even 737 officers may not be enough to curb the violence, police Chief LeRonne Armstrong suggests. In a written statement, Armstrong said the city must evaluate whether 737 "is the appropriate number of officers needed to address the increase in violent crimes, calls for service, and the federal oversight, that we at OPD are being asked to address."

He said the combination of those factors "is beginning to have a substantial impact on our officers' wellness, both physically and mentally. Although we have fewer staff members, they are still responsible for managing the same day-to-day workload that we had when there were more officers at OPD."

Measure Z, a parcel tax that voters approved in 2014 to boost police staffing and community violence prevention services, requires the city to maintain at least 678 sworn officers before the money can be used.

Thao said that requirement is another reason she is pushing for more academies.

Since 2018, about 67% of people who started the police department's basic recruit academy completed it, according to the department's information memo to the City Council's Public Safety Committee. In the current academy that began in July, 26 trainees are slated to graduate, even though there are 45 spots.

"We need to fix those core failures," Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan said, adding that she wants more information about how the police department is planning to remedy recruiting issues and retain a diversity of officers — including women — before she commits to adding academies.

"It's not just about doing it more or less, but about doing it better," Kaplan said.

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she is wary of spending more on policing.

"Our public budget really needs to have the accompanying evaluation in terms of effectiveness," she said. "I've been really clear I want our public safety infrastructure to be effective with effective and accountable policing, as well as public parks, libraries, jobs, housing. All those things together make safer and more stable communities."

Thao said she's confident that some changes to the recruitment process — such as partnering with Merritt College's law enforcement training program — will help build a strong network of trainees. She said she's also asking the city administration to explore the cost of offering childcare to trainees and officers.

Last year, the City Council formed a task force to rethink public safety in the city, with the goal of reducing the police department budget by 50% over two years.

Although the council did not ultimately defund the police department in the 2021-23 budget — it actually increased its funding by $38.5 million — it froze about 55 sworn police positions and boosted spending for other public safety services, including investments in civilian responses to mental health and other non-crime crises.

Getting those programs running and "addressing the 60% of (police) calls to service that don't go to violent crime — those absolutely have to go to other departments," Fortunato Bas said of the funds. "That's the main way we're going to be able to allow police officers to have a more realistic job."

Thao agrees but says all avenues need to be explored.

"People speak about it like they're mutually exclusive," Thao said. "We must invest deeply into our preventive care. The same token, we must take seriously the response time for more violent crimes. These two items go hand in hand."

(c)2021 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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