Measure Y was supposed to make Oakland safer. When voters overwhelmingly approved the plan in 2004 to add 63 cops and finance an array of feel-good programs, crime was on the rise. But in the years after the parcel tax measure passed, crime spiraled out of control. What happened? Some supporters of Measure Y blame the Oakland Police Department for taking too long implement it. But a recent court case reveals that the measure likely never would have impacted violent crime. It was a badly written law and a waste of money that should be overturned.
In fact, Measure Y now could cost the city dearly. In the coming days, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch is expected to rule that the police misspent Measure Y funds, a decision that could cost the city more than $9 million. Roesch's expected ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Oakland attorney and political gadfly Marleen Sacks, who has pushed for a strict interpretation of Measure Y, arguing that the city should be penalized for its flawed implementation of it. A closer look at both Roesch and Sacks' reasoning reveals yet another instance of apparently well-meaning people not seeing the forest for the trees.
First, a bit of background. The Oakland Police Department has been severely understaffed for as long as anyone can remember. But putting more cops on the streets has never been popular with many progressive residents. So in 2004, city leaders hammered out a compromise tax measure that combined the hiring of police officers, who would be assigned to "community policing" duties, with a host of violence-prevention programs. Measure Y, which needed a two-thirds vote to become law, won easily with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
The measure called for the police department to "hire and maintain" 63 additional police officers, bringing the city's total authorized force to 802. Fifty-seven of the new cops were to become "problem-solving officers," a specialized group that would act as liaisons with community leaders across the city, dealing with quality-of-life issues such as drugs, prostitution, graffiti, and vandalism. Backers of the measure expected the police department to immediately begin hiring cops. But that wasn't realistic.
As Deputy Police Chief David Kozicki noted in testimony in Sacks' lawsuit, department rules do not allow new officers to be assigned to problem-solving positions as envisioned by Measure Y. The reason was simple. Rookie cops need extensive on-the-job training before they're ready to tackle difficult assignments. It also makes no sense to have rookies become the face of community policing. As a result, longstanding department policy required that new cops spend their first three years working patrol, responding to 911 calls, and learning how to become effective officers. "Newly sworn officers are not ready for specialized assignments, including community-policing assignments," City Attorney John Russo stated in court papers.
There's no dispute that police brass failed to fully explain this to Oakland voters before Measure Y became law. Nor was it widely understood that the police department planned to put veterans from the patrol division into the problem-solving positions and then hire rookies to backfill their spots. The department, first under Chief Richard Word, and then Chief Wayne Tucker, also quietly decided to use Measure Y funds to pay for the hiring and training of the rookies. They reasoned that they could not fulfill the dictates of Measure Y and have enough officers patrolling Oakland streets unless they could hire new cops to replace the officers promoted. They also knew that the city couldn't afford to raid its already depleted general fund to pay for the new cops.
It was a logical conclusion. After all, Measure Y clearly allows the department to hire and train rookies for problem-solving positions. So why not use the funds to pay for rookies who would take the spots vacated by veteran officers assigned to Measure Y jobs? That way, both the needs of Measure Y and the patrol division could be met.
But from Sacks' perspective, the department acted illegally. In her lawsuit, she argued for a strict reading of Measure Y, contending that its funds could only be used to hire and pay for the 63 community policing officers outlined in the measure — and not for any other cops. "The city ... had a clear, ministerial duty not to expend Measure Y funds to recruit and train brand new police officers," she stated in court papers.
According to court documents filed by Russo, the police department has used $9.3 million of Measure Y funds to hire and train rookies to replace patrol veterans who became problem-solving officers. At a minimum, Sacks wants the city's general fund, which is already facing an estimated $50 million deficit next year, to refund all of that money back to the Measure Y account. Based on tentative ruling Roesch issued last week, it appears that the judge is going to agree with her. Roesch is expected to issue his final decision soon.
For his part, Russo deserves credit for arguing for a more liberal interpretation of the law. He contends that Measure Y's language is purposely vague, and that using funds to recruit and train rookies who replace veterans promoted to problem-solving positions fits within the definition of hiring and maintaining. He also has noted that if Roesch rules in Sacks' favor, it could result in an absurd outcome. The police department may be forced to transfer rookies into problem-solving positions in order to not harm the city's general fund.
There's no doubt that police department brass should have done a better job explaining its plans for Measure Y before voters approved it. There's also no doubt that the department took a long time to fulfill the measure's requirement of adding 63 community policing officers, including 57 problem solvers and six other officers who work in "crime reduction teams." In fact, the department just recently met this mandate, four years after Measure Y became law.
In his deposition, Kozicki explained that the department was hampered by an unexpectedly high drop-out rate in its police academies over the past several years and by larger than expected number of disability retirements. As a result, the department decided that it was better to leave the Measure Y problem-solving positions open than to have the patrol division be understaffed.
Kozicki's argument is convincing. But it also points to the shortcomings of Measure Y. In fact, the whole concept of "community policing" envisioned by the measure is wrongheaded — and police brass deserves credit for making it a low priority. Under Measure Y, every one of the city's 57 police beats gets its own problem-solving officer, regardless of how many actual crime problems an individual beat has. Consequently, some of the toughest neighborhoods of East and West Oakland get the same number of problem-solving cops as Montclair and Rockridge.
That's a ridiculous waste of taxpayer funds, and it's a stupid way to run a police department. There is no good reason for why each section of the Oakland hills needs its own veteran officer, especially when violent crime has left entire swaths of the city's flatlands under siege. It's also absurd to deploy experienced cops in relatively safe neighborhoods when the city's police department can't solve violent crimes. As this newspaper has noted, Oakland has the worst record for solving violent crimes, particularly murder cases, of any large city in California (see "Arrests Are Down, and Crime Is Up," 12/3/08).
As for Sacks' arguments, they may be technically correct under a narrow reading of the law, but they're not good for Oakland. Her suit either will worsen the city's already dire financial problems or force inexperienced cops into jobs they're not ready to handle. Moreover, her suit ignores the fact that the goal of Measure Y has now been fulfilled. Every little section of the city now has its own problem-solving officer — whether it actually needs them or not.
As for Roesch's final decision, it doesn't really matter whether he sides with Sacks or Russo. Either way, Measure Y should be rewritten and put back in front of voters. Even if the judge agrees with Russo and dismisses Sacks' lawsuit, we're still stuck with a community-policing plan that benefits the wealthy at the expense of those who have to cope with the ravages of crime every day.
When it comes down to it, Measure Y is just another example of how not to legislate from the ballot box. Liberals and progressives in this city simply have to get over their hang-ups about police. Cops are not the bad guys; we desperately need more of them. At the same time, those well-meaning busy bodies in the hills who have too much time on their hands have to come to grips with the fact that their city can't afford to give them their own personal "problem solvers" when the rest of Oakland is on fire.
What this city really needs is a new tax measure to replace Measure Y. This time, it should pay for the 63 officers — or preferably more — with no strings attached. Let's let the police department experts decide how to deploy them. Hopefully, they'll transfer those problem-solving officers out of the hills and into the woefully understaffed crime investigation unit. But if they don't and violent crime remains high, then the answer is to demand that they be replaced — not pass another badly written law.
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