Federal grant will pay for 25 Calif. officers

Despite the grant, Oakland will continue losing officers this year through attrition

By Matthai Kuruvila
The San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — The U.S. Department of Justice has awarded Oakland a $10.7 million grant that will enable the city to hire 25 police officers for three years, bolstering a force that was stripped of dozens of officers last year because of budget cuts.

Oakland was one of 238 cities to win a Justice Department grant after Police Chief Anthony Batts proposed using the funds to hire officers to work on youth violence, human trafficking and juvenile delinquency around four middle schools.

Batts said the officers are expected to create safe routes to school, monitor parolees near schools, mentor youth and develop four-block safety zones around the schools, which have not yet been selected.

Among the goals, Batts said, would be to change the perception youth have of police so that "police officers are seen in a positive way."

"Too many times this organization is ... in a suppression mode," Batts said. "We have to do a lot more prevention and intervention and ... deal with the community without them seeing us dragging someone off to jail."

Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith had suggested using middle schools as the hub, Batts said.

Troy Flint, a school district spokesman, explained the focus on middle schools.

"We want to reach youth at the point they're more prone to temptations and continue that culture of safety that's present at elementary schools but sometimes gets lost at the middle school level," Flint said.

The schools most likely to be considered for the program include Roosevelt, West Oakland, Madison, and the multiple schools on the Havenscourt and Elmhurst campuses.

The Justice Department based its awards on a combination of factors including specific crime issues, overall crime rate and a city's economic health.

In Northern California, San Jose got $1.7 million to fund three officers and Salinas got $8 million for eight officers. Oakland's 25 officers were the maximum allowed.

Community policing
Oakland's focus on community policing is a necessity that will become even more vital in the years to come, as cities struggle to pay for police, said Bernard Melekian, the director of the DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services office, which administers the grants.

Over the last two years, 10,000 officers have been laid off nationally because of the recession, Melekian said. Another 30,000 positions have remained unfunded and vacant.

The economy will fundamentally change how law enforcement operates, Melekian said, forcing departments to look at models that engage more with the community and don't simply react to crimes. Melekian said the Oakland police plan to work in tandem with the school district to address various problems was "compelling."

"The need to develop partnerships between the community and local law enforcement is absolutely imperative, particularly when you look at the declining numbers of sworn personnel," said Melekian, who announced the grant in the courtyard of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland. Oakland currently has 650 police officers, and the new officers are expected to come on board in a month's time. In July 2010, the City Council, facing a budget shortfall, laid off 80 of the department's then 775 officers after the police union declined to pay 9 percent of their salaries into their pensions. Twenty-two cadets were also laid off.

Since then, the city has been steadily hiring back officers to deal with attrition. All of the officers who have not found other jobs have been hired back. With the new grant, 12 of the cadets and 10 officers who went to other agencies can be hired back.

Force still shrinking
Despite the grant, the city will continue losing officers this year through attrition because it has not budgeted for a police academy until 2012.

To compensate for the lower number of officers, Oakland called on federal authorities for help.

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said Wednesday that the slaying of 3-year-old Carlos Nava, who was hit by a stray bullet when alleged gang members opened fire on an Oakland street on the afternoon of Aug. 8, prompted her to bring together a variety of law enforcement agencies.

The U.S. attorney's office is prosecuting crimes around schools, the county district attorney has someone working inside the Oakland Police Department to develop crime enhancements, and U.S. marshals are tracking down fugitive and felony suspects, Batts said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also working with the police.

Combined with those efforts, Oakland police have been focusing efforts on hot-spot crime areas that are determined by analyzing crime statistics. Batts believes the tactic has been effective, but he plans to do a statistical evaluation soon.

Batts believes the new grant provides another way for police to prevent crime.

"We can be a positive force," he said. "We can be protectors of our children and protectors of our community and also stop future crimes."

Copyright 2011 San Francisco Chronicle


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