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Getting Away with Murder

The Oakland Police Department can't lower the city's crime rate, because it doesn't catch criminals.

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The city council and the mayor have funded two police academies that will put forty more officers on the street by January 2013, and another forty by next July, but OPD loses roughly sixty officers every year to retirements, disability, lateral transfers, and terminations. Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana's forthcoming Five-Year Financial Plan for the city will recommend allocating funds to guarantee two academies every fiscal year for the next half decade. But given the current salary package — officers earn roughly $80,000 in starting salary, plus benefits, pension payments, and overtime — cash-strapped Oakland cannot afford to hire enough officers to get back to 2009 staffing levels without a complete turnaround of the local economy, higher taxes on city residents, gutting other vital municipal services, or rewriting the police union's contract.

During the past year, there has been much focus on whether US District Judge Thelton Henderson will place OPD under control of a court-appointed special receiver as a result of the department's failure to comply with decade-long reform efforts stemming from The Riders scandal.

OPD's Internal Affairs investigations into misconduct allegations and the inability to track and deal with problem officers have been at the heart of the stagnated reform efforts. But the department's failure to lower Oakland's crime rate is due to a litany of factors that fall outside the confines of court oversight and have gone unaddressed by city leaders.

For example, field supervisors and line officers alike complain about a lack of strong leadership in OPD. They also complain about a reactive department culture that does not have the resources or the institutional support to conduct systematic investigations into violent crime. In addition, OPD's crime lab has not been a top priority of the department for at least a decade, despite repeated calls by the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury for a consolidated countywide crime lab. That proposal was rejected repeatedly by neighboring police departments earlier this fall, leaving Oakland with several years' worth of backlogged evidence and no long-term solution in sight.

Moreover, OPD's failure to quickly analyze forensic evidence, including fingerprints, DNA, and shell casings, has prompted homicide investigators to rely heavily on eyewitness identifications and statements and suspect confessions, all of which are coming under increasing scrutiny by national crime experts. According to The Innocence Project, false confessions played a major role in a quarter of the 301 convictions that have been overturned with DNA evidence nationwide since 1989.

The staffing shortage is a critical reason why OPD is fighting a Sisyphean battle against Oakland's crime rate. But the department's failure to solve violent crimes and meet even the most basic standards of contemporary policing contribute to the citizenry's plummeting level of confidence in their most highly-paid — and overworked — civil servants.

OPD's inability to effectively investigate and solve violent crime is due not only to the lack of funding and staff for its crime lab, but also because of the department's decision over the years to not focus on its clearance rates. In June, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury noted that more than 1,000 sexual assault and homicide cases in Oakland had yet to be analyzed. More damningly, the grand jury heard testimony that the crime lab had 330 unsolved homicides and 650 unsolved sexual assaults where evidence "directly related to the crime" had yet to be tested.

Despite the Grand Jury's recommendation (for the second time since 2000) that Alameda County law enforcement should create a consolidated crime lab to make more resources available to law enforcement and help reduce Oakland's evidence backlog, the cards appear to be stacked against such a solution. "Without political support for consolidation and political leadership supporting the establishment of consistent and reliable funding, any endeavor to implement regional consolidation of crime lab services will remain an unfulfilled vision," Albany police Chief Mike McQuiston, the head of the Alameda County Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs Association, wrote in response to the Grand Jury's findings.

McQuiston acknowledged that the consolidation of crime labs in the county would be beneficial, but he rejected the Grand Jury's recommendation, saying the "costs would certainly be vast and prohibitive in the current financial environment." In short, the rest of Alameda County law enforcement does not see a fiscal or political imperative to assist residents of Oakland, the region's largest city and biggest economic engine, which is in the midst of a public safety crisis that shows no signs of abating.

At the same time, internal department documents indicate that OPD does not systematically submit firearms evidence to national databases, nor does it trace weapons back to their points of origin. A civilian contractor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, who conducted trace work on seized weapons for OPD, was let go in August 2011 when federal funds for his position expired. Trace work on weapons is currently only submitted to the ATF on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, examinations of fingerprints found at crime scenes in Oakland decreased by 40 percent in 2011, and there is a backlog of 1,118 prints awaiting analysis by the crime lab. Similarly, there is a massive backlog of untested firearms evidence. At the end of 2011, OPD's crime lab had 1,871 such requests pending. Moreover, Criminalistics Division Manager Mary Gibbons stated in her March 1, 2012 annual report that she intended to eliminate all pending requests unrelated to murder cases that were more than three years old.

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