Oakland police and city officials have been vowing for almost a decade to implement federally mandated reforms designed to fix the city's troubled police department. Yet despite these promises, lasting change has yet to come. According to policing experts, community activists, and even the federal monitors who have audited the Oakland Police Department, there are underlying institutional and cultural problems within the department that are major roadblocks to bringing Oakland's police up to the standards of 21st-century law enforcement. And unless the department addresses these deeper issues, its efforts to reform are doomed to fail.
Community leaders who have followed OPD's lack of progress contend that there is one key problem: Most of the department's sworn officers have no connection with Oakland's residents other than through surveillance and force. Many OPD officers commute to the city from distant suburbs. Many police cadets are recruited from outside Oakland and come to the job with biases about the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. All-too-frequent allegations of racial profiling, incidents of excessive force, and episodes of outright brutality are the unfortunate result of a dysfunctional departmental culture.
Revelations last week that photographs of US District Judge Thelton Henderson, who is black and who oversees OPD's federal consent decree, and Mayor Jean Quan, who is Chinese American, were defaced in a racially offensive manner and left posted outside the lineup room in the Police Administration Building for two days drew sharp criticism from the monitors who oversee the consent decree. In the most recent quarterly report, monitor Robert Warshaw wrote that such actions "strike at the heart of the NSA [Negotiated Settlement Agreement]."
It also wasn't an isolated incident: a photograph taken in December 2010 at the former shooting range in the basement of OPD's headquarters showed the contempt that some officers have for the progressive views held by many Oaklanders. The photo is of a flyer posted on a bulletin board, depicting a pilot standing on the wing of a World War II-era plane. The caption read: "You shut the fuck up. We'll protect America. Keep out of our fucking way, liberal pussies."
While acts of bigotry and human rights violations are serious issues in and of themselves, critics of OPD also note how the department's institutionalized problems negatively affect the local economy and starve resources from other much-needed city services. The police department is at the very center of Oakland's chronic fiscal deficits and long-term debts due to the enormously disproportionate share of the city budget spent on policing. Just operating OPD consumes about 40 percent of the city's general fund each year. The retirement costs of former cops also have driven Oakland into high levels of debt and forced cuts to city services, a problem that is made much worse because these retirees do not live in the city, and spend their pension incomes elsewhere.
Just 9 percent of Oakland's current 644 police officers actually live in Oakland, according to data provided by OPD. Adding civilian OPD staff who also live outside of Oakland, the total number of police department employees who do not reside in the city is about 785, more than 70 percent of the department's total workforce.
The city paid these non-Oakland employees roughly $126 million in salary, overtime, and benefits in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. In other words, Oakland taxpayers are exporting up to 86 percent of OPD's payroll, a huge sum of money, to surrounding suburbs.
Then there are the pensions payouts to former OPD officers from the Police and Fire Retirement System — the city's old pension system. Each year the PFRS system, which is publicly funded, distributes roughly $64 million in benefits to just over 1,000 beneficiaries. Only 7 percent of PFRS recipients live in Oakland, meaning that about $60 million of the retirement system's dollars are leaving the city. Most PFRS recipients reside in the same surrounding suburban towns where current Oakland cops live, but some former cops have retired out of state in Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona, among other destinations. The bottom line is that up to $186 million of Oakland's tax dollars are lost to other communities each year in the form of OPD salaries and retired police benefits.
But those aren't the only costs of having what amounts to an outsourced police department. Over the past decade, Oakland taxpayers have paid more than $58 million to settle civil lawsuits filed against police for the mistreatment of city residents — including assaults and fatal shootings. That's more than the combined payouts of San Jose and San Francisco during the same period.
At the same time, discussions about public safety are often dominated by proposals to boost OPD spending even higher. And some community members worry that if and when OPD is put under federal receivership, the city will be forced to increase the department's funding even more.
The bottom line, say many frustrated Oaklanders, is that, until OPD's rank and file members come to identify with and feel accountable to the communities they patrol, little will change. And Oakland residents will continue to pay the price.
Of the 91 percent of Oakland's sworn police officers who live outside of the city, most reside in other East Bay communities, including San Leandro, Castro Valley, San Ramon, and Concord — places with very different demographics than Oakland. Some live farther away, in places like Santa Rosa, Napa, and Sacramento. Still others commute from distant communities, such as College City (near Williams), Shingle Springs (near Placerville), and San Luis Obispo.