OAKLAND, CA – Since the Oakland City Council laid off 80 officers and 21 cadets in 2010 to save money, crime is up and police response time is down.
Criminal investigations declined. The special squads that tackle guns, gangs and parolees plunged from 10 to two. Response times to 911 calls slowed from an average of 15 to 17 minutes.
But nearly everyone involved with the decision says they would do it again if conditions were the same.
The layoffs, council members said, were driven by the cold reality of a $30.5 million deficit and a police union that refused to give concessions that other unions gave.
“The reality is, they were different times,” said Councilwoman Desley Brooks. “If we were in the financial shape we’re in today, would we make different decisions? I don’t know.”
At the time, the city’s shortfall looked like a long-term problem. A $78 million deficit was projected for the next year. Roughly 75 percent of the city’s general fund budget went to police and fire costs, with an additional 10 percent going to debt payments. All of the city’s unions gave concessions – except one, the police, whose contract was not up for negotiation.
The council demanded that police officers pay 9 percent of their salaries toward their pension. In return for a pension contribution of nearly $8 million, the police union wanted the same no-layoff guarantee that firefighters have.
But the council refused on a 5-3 vote, arguing that such a guarantee would be financially risky.
“It was a crisis,” said Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who was part of the negotiating team. “The police had to understand that we were responsible for providing all the different services a city requires. They refused to contribute to their pension at the time. In my opinion, they’re the ones who called the shots.”
Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, the police union president at the time of the layoffs, stepped down from his union role and now patrols East Oakland, the most violent part of the state’s most violent city.
As officers scramble from call to call, Arotzarena said he’s seen urgent requests remain on hold. The crime rate went down the year of the layoffs, but in successive years it has gone up.
“Somebody out there probably lost their life because of this decision,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind. As brutal as that sounds, there’s no way around it.”
Arotzarena said De La Fuente and other council members don’t tell the full story of what happened.
In 2011, a year after the layoffs, the union agreed to pay the disputed pension contribution and to accept lesser benefits for new hires, Arotzarena said. But the council hired back only a small number of officers. Today, with 640 officers, the force has lost 136 officers from the 776 it had at the time of the layoffs. Two years earlier, in 2008, Oakland had 837 officers.
Despite the union concessions in 2011, Arotzarena said, “I didn’t see any increases in cops.”
City mismanagement of finances led to the layoffs, he believes. When times were good, they didn’t save. And after the union’s givebacks, he said, “they’re not saving that money, they’re spending it. That’s for sure.”
To what extent the council had alternatives is still under debate.
It could have laid off fewer officers – 53 instead of 80, as then-Mayor Ron Dellums wanted. It could have demanded a lower pension contribution to avoid layoffs, as councilwomen Jane Brunner and Jean Quan, now the mayor, advocated. Or it could have cut libraries or recreation centers instead, as Councilman Larry Reid now says he would have accepted.
“The council had a choice,” said Reid, who represents East Oakland. “They could have made cuts in other areas without laying off 80 police officers. The political will was not there.
“The No. 1priority of this city is public safety. I have residents living like caged animals in their homes and they can’t sit on their front porches, and children can’t play in the streets.”
Reid, Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan voted against the layoffs in 2010. Quan, De La Fuente, Brunner, Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan voted for them.
Brunner, who said it would be “crazy to lay off police” in Oakland, felt the city had no choice. To keep police staffing as it was then, Brunner said, “every single other program would have to be shut down. No paving the streets. No sidewalks. No senior centers. Libraries would have to close. City Hall would close. We couldn’t pay for a city administrator.”
It’s not clear if the city will ever regain its police staffing heyday of 2008, but council members are trying.
The council has approved three police academies – each with 55 cadets – for the coming year. But the force is only expected to gain 40 officers by the end of the training because not all are expected to graduate, and because other officers will retire or quit. It costs $170,000 per cadet for academy recruitment, training and pay.
But other factors loom that threaten staffing, now and for the future.
A large portion of the force – around 90 officers earlier this year – are off patrol due to injury. Another 14 are in the internal affairs division, largely due to requirements of a settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit.
And in 2014, the city will lose federal money that pays for 25 officers that work closely with Oakland schools. Also that year, Measure Y, a city parcel tax that pays for 63 officers and violence-prevention programs, is set to expire.
Nonetheless, Quan is optimistic.
She said pension reforms planned at the state level could make it much cheaper to hire police officers. The recession appears to be ebbing. And she’s pushed to keep the number of officers from declining further.
“I wish that we could have come to a compromise then and didn’t have to lay off officers,” Quan said. “We either had to pass the budget or not.”