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Doing More With Less: OPD’s Plans to Bring Down Crime

In yesterday’s post about the community meeting with Oakland’s new police chief, I focused almost entirely on his presence and leadership qualitiies, and I mostly ignored the specifics of his plan. That was partly intentional: I am not an expert on policing strategies, nor do I wish to become one. The whole point of having an effective police chief, in my view, is so that non-professionals don’t need to concern themselves with policing strategies. Given Chief Batts’s success reducing crime in Long Beach, his evident intelligence and competence, and what appear to be good leadership and management skills, I have high hopes that the department is in good hands, and that if we let him do his job, we will see some measurable results in coming months and years without having to second-guess every decision he makes.

With that said, I did hope to discuss the specifics of his plan a bit more, but I simply ran out of time last night (also, the post was getting longer than I expected). As I wrote last night, most of the meeting was dedicated to a presentation of two documents: the “Strategic Plan Framework,” and a slide show which enumerates the ways in which the Police Department fails to live up to the goals presented in the Strategic Plan, and then repeats the information in the Strategic Plan about how Batts hopes to meet those goals. Both documents are very quick, very easy reads, so I recommend them to anyone in Oakland who wants a clear and simple presentation of what Batts’s priorities are.

I won’t summarize the presentation here, because it is already written in bullet point format in the documents, but Batts (along with Assistant Chief Howard Jordan and Scott Bryant, a strategic consultant who is advising Batts as he reworks the department) did elaborate on several of the topics, so I’ll relay some of that information here in case it is not widely known.

Before I get into any details, I want to mention two things that seemed to pervade every aspect of the meeting. One is Batts’s commitment to transparency, communication, and community involvement. Almost all public officials pay lip service to open government, and almost all of them fail to live up to it. Chief Batts, as far as I can tell, really means it, almost to the point of obsession. He has held dozens of meetings with citizens and organizations all over the city since he was appointed, and he urges residents to provide feedback via online surveys (add your 2 cents here) or by other means. He has reached out to the press and promised to hold regular press conferences. He added Public Information Officers so that the department can get information to the press and the public more quickly and effectively. He makes sure that information is being shared with the public promptly at crime scenes. The man is no dummy, and he knows that fostering good relations with the press and the public will make him personally popular, improve the city’s reputation, and also pay off with increased community cooperation in fighting crime. So there’s strategy and self-interest behind his outreach, but I also think that he truly believes all his talk about providing good service to the department’s “customers.”

The other thing that pervaded every aspect of the meeting was the staffing problem. Almost everything Batts said was placed in the context of explaining how he hoped to accomplish more with inadequate resources. For instance, he explained that he has ordered detectives to work patrol twice a month in order to help reduce 911 response times and provide more police presence in neighborhoods. This helps on the streets, but obviously it means that fewer manhours will be devoted to detective work. And with more officers on the street, more cases will be kicked up to the detectives, so the detectives’ workload could increase as they simultaneously have fewer hours to devote to investigating crimes. He is gambling—that’s his word, not mine—that the beefed up police presence on the streets will eventually pay off in lower numbers of crimes that need to be investigated, but it is a gamble, and clearly he would prefer to have more patrol officers and a full detective corps. He simply doesn’t have enough bodies, so he has to find new ways to make do with what he has.

Another example is 911 response times. Chief Batts displayed this disturbing graph of average response times to 911 calls, comparing Oakland to the norm:

This is an average, so in many cases, it takes far longer than 15 minutes for a cop to show up when someone calls 911 and reports a crime—Batts alluded to horror stories about people who have reported burglaries in the early afternoon, and then been woken up at 4 am by an officer who was finally showing up to take a report. (“Unacceptable” was a word that Batts and Bryant used several times during the presentation.) You can see in the graph that the bulk of the delay is caused because processing the call takes longer, and dispatching a unit takes longer. These are directly caused by a shortage of dispatchers and a shortage of officers on the streets. Batts said that a city like Oakland should have about 12 dispatchers on duty during peak hours (2 pm to midnight, roughly). Oakland usually has 6 dispatchers working during peak hours. He did note that 11 new dispatchers are about to be trained, which will nearly double the total amount (there are currently 15). This should help improve response times somewhat.

The more serious problem is the shortage of officers. The green area in the graph shows delay that is almost entirely caused by a lack of available units—dispatchers are ready to dispatch, but there are no officers ready to be dispatched. Unfortunately, this is extremely hard to address without a major increase in the number of sworn officers, and there are few prospects for any significant improvement in this area anytime soon—Oakland is already about 25 officers below the minimum number of sworn officers mandated by law (803) and Batts said the department loses an average of 4 to 5 officers a month due to attrition. I believe he said that there are two lateral academies scheduled for later in the year (lateral academies are short police academies for officers coming from other jurisdictions), and that he expects a full academy to occur in 2011 (I could have some of this wrong, because I didn’t take notes about everything). Those academies might help keep Oakland near 803 sworn officers, but Batts himself has said that 800 officers is far too small for a city of Oakland’s size and Oakland’s crime rate.

Batts also pointed out that because there is an endless backlog of 911 calls, it means that police officers in Oakland are almost never able to do any real patrolling—or what he called “hunting for crime” by driving up dark alleys, checking in on parolees, and so on. Ideally, he believes that 30% of an officer’s time should be spent on that sort of stuff; in Oakland at the moment, the percentage of time spent on that sort of stuff is essentially zero.

Chief Batts is working on ways to have civilian employees take over some of the desk duties that sworn officers now do, so that he can get more officers out on the streets, but it’s hard to imagine that you can free up a significant number of officers that way. Batts, despite his general candor, was extremely careful last night not to wade into the perennial debate about how to pay for more officers. In the context of answering a question about CompStat, he pointed out that while he is friendly with Bill Bratton and believes strongly in using time-sensitive data analysis as a tool, Oakland is not New York, and indeed, the West Coast is not the East Coast. He noted that eastern cities typically have much larger police forces per capita, but officers are less well paid. He pointed out that New York has about 40,000 police officers and joked, “That’s an army! I could take over the world if I had 40,000 officers!” Despite those observations and the frequent references to limited resources, Batts strenuously avoided expressing any judgments about funding decisions, or the high salaries and generous benefits and pensions that OPD officers receive.

To his credit, Batts never made any effort to use the understaffing of the OPD as an excuse for not being able to accomplish his “vision” of turning Oakland into one of the safest large cities in California by 2015. Instead of whining about how he can’t get anything done with only 800 cops, he talks about the staffing problems as if they are simply a fact of life that he needs to work with. That unwillingness to pass the buck or make excuses is one quality that people seem to find so refreshing.

I’m getting depressed just writing about this stuff, so I should probably move on to the more positive aspects of the meeting. Assistant Chief Jordan reminded people that crime was down 37 percent in January compared to January 2009, and crime is down 31 percent for the year to date. Oakland had 7 homicides through the end of February, compared to 9 in 2009 and many more in 2008. Chief Batts said at one point that the D.A. is bringing more cases, so I assume that means that even as the number of crimes committed has been declining, the number of crimes solved has been rising. I don’t want to read too much into two months of statistics, but I’d certainly rather have the numbers trending lower instead of higher.

Chief Batts has some other priorities which I won’t go into here, since I don’t have anything to add beyond what is in the presentation. He is very interested, for example, in strengthening ties with neighboring cities in order to address some of the regional problems that cause Oakland’s violent crime—the movement of drugs and guns being two major examples. He wants to move to a “Total Community Policing” model, basically meaning that instead of having certain officers assigned to work closely with communities while most officers chase 911 calls, he wants to move toward having all OPD officers work more closely with the communities in their beats.

Chief Batts also seems to believe that a major cultural change has to occur both within the OPD, and out in the community, although I’m not sure he would use that phrase. Morale is incredibly low among OPD staff, according to survey results that appear in the slide show, and the citizenry’s confidence in the OPD is also quite low. Batts is determined to change both of those things, and that is where I think that his leadership qualities may play an important role—deploying resources wisely is one thing, but inspiring confidence among one’s staff and the general public are something else entirely. If Batts fails on either front, then the other one alone might not be enough to really change anything. If he succeeds on both fronts, however, then his goal of making Oakland one of the safest cities in California by 2015 might not be quite as far-fetched as it seems.

Overall, I suspect that most civilians left the meeting feeling more optimistic than they did when they entered. I know that I did—the bad news was mostly old news, and the more recent developments (about the continued drop in crime this year, and the specific strategies that Batts is employing) sound like good places to start. Chief Batts strikes me as a strong leader, but not the kind of strong leader who is so deeply insecure that he cannot delegate properly or share credit where it is due or defer to those who may have more expertise or better ideas about a particular subject. (Did I mention Rudy Giuliani in last night’s post? Ah yes, I did.) And he seems very serious about his goal of dramatically improving the relationship between the department and the community—last night’s meeting was just one example of his efforts to foster collaboration and cooperation instead of division. I would normally be too lazy to write all this up in a long (and somewhat unstructured) blog post, but I figure the least I can do to repay Batts’s efforts to reach out to the public is to help him spread the word. Remember, there are still two more meetings next week, one in West Oakland on Wednesday and in San Antonio on Thursday, and the Chief of Police wants to hear your thoughts and concerns—how often does that happen?