Oakland has funds, but can't find more officers
Christopher Heredia, Chronicle Staff Writer
Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
It's not a shortage of money, but a shortage of applicants that is keeping Oakland from hiring more police officers under Measure Y, an anti-crime measure voters approved last fall to finance the hiring of 63 officers and bring the ranks to 803 officers.
Cities nationwide are finding a shortage of people willing to be police officers, but the problem is exacerbated in Oakland by steep housing prices and intense competition from rival law enforcement agencies and the military, according to a report the City Council's Public Safety Committee will discuss tonight.
"We could expand the academies, but it wouldn't have much effect because we aren't able to attract a sufficient number of candidates," said Don Link, chair of the community policing advisory board.
Because just 5 percent of applicants meet the background check and academic and physical rigors needed to be an Oakland police officer, Link estimates the city would need 750 applicants to fill the 35 seats available in the next academy class -- a figure law enforcement considers an ideal class size. The past three classes have accepted 23 to 34 applicants after 456 to 750 applications were received.
Compounding the problem is the fact Oakland offers generous benefits that allow officers to retire at age 50, and the department loses about three officers a month.
Measure Y, a parcel tax 70 percent of voters approved in November, provided $9.5 million annually to hire more police and $6.4 million annually to fund anti-violence programs. The city has deployed four officers so far; 18 more are expected to graduate in April.
Oakland is grappling with a spate of homicides -- 19 so far this year -- and residents in many neighborhoods increasingly complain about muggings and slow response times.
Councilwoman Jane Brunner said she shares their frustrations and on March 7 will introduce legislation calling on City Administrator Deborah Edgerly and Police Chief Wayne Tucker to hire 150 officers by January.
How that will be accomplished so quickly remains uncertain.
"People in the neighborhoods are very concerned by the kinds of crimes that are occurring during the day," Brunner said. "The perpetrators are violent even after people give up their money. The residents are not getting the response time they expect or deserve. There's a desperate need for more police to interact with."
Brunner said the city may be able to use Measure Y money for officer training.
Rockridge resident Paul Williams is among those who wants more police in his neighborhood, where there have been numerous muggings in recent weeks.
"What we need now is to deter people from committing these crimes, and I think best way is to have more police," Williams said.
The Police Department has taken measures to ensure more candidates get in the pipeline. If, for instance, an applicant fails a written test, rather than being disqualified they are provided with course work so he or she is prepared the next time.
But it may not be enough. Other cities have instituted $10,000 signing bonuses and housing allowances to officers who complete academy and field training.
Brunner said she is not keen about throwing money at applicants, noting the city offers attractive salaries. Rookies earn $62,000 a year, a figure that rises to $89,000 after being on the force three years.
Another avenue Oakland is considering is loosening the guidelines dictating where applicants live. Right now, applicants must reside within about a 5-mile radius of the city limits. Expanding that zone would enable officers to live in, say, Antioch, where homes are cheaper.
Link has suggested the department assign injured or older officers to desk or training jobs rather than sideline or retire them. He has also suggested bringing back retirees to perform time-consuming background checks on police academy students.
"Everyone would like to find that magic bullet, that one thing the city is not doing to jump-start the number of people applying to the academies," Link said.
"All the stops are out. The city is going full tilt looking at ways to improve its recruitment effort. It doesn't mean there isn't a more effective way out there that we haven't heard of yet."
Oakland City Council's Public Safety Committee will discuss the status of Measure Y tonight at 7:30 at City Hall, hearing room one, first floor, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza.
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