The Oakland we haven't known for almost a decade is back. Ron Dellums, the grand lion of the city's withered black and progressive coalitions, has snatched power from the Perata/Brown machine and returned it to the old guard. And in an exquisite irony, he has arrived just in time to confront the rebirth of the city's defining attribute: violent crime. Whereas 94 people were murdered last year, the police department has already reported 66 homicides in the last six months, putting the city on a pace to exceed 132 murders by the end of 2006 and that's before the violent summer months get rolling.
Of course, the city is hardly alone. Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the national homicide rate rose 4.8 percent in 2005, and violent crime rose 2.5 percent overall, reversing a fourteen-year trend of flat or declining rates. Over the last two years, San Francisco and Richmond have reeled from a spike in gang- and drug-related murders, although violence has stabilized in both cities. Criminologists have proposed a host of contributing factors: poverty, drugs, community policing, mandatory minimum sentences. But the one condition that always has reliably predicted the crime rate is demographics. Violence rises and falls with the number of teenagers and young men walking the streets. And a demographic bulge known as the "echo boom," in which the baby boom returns to haunt us via its children, is just beginning.
Cities around the Bay Area have embarked upon a massive hiring binge, scrambling to beef up their police departments before this crisis lands on them. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has announced plans to hire 620 new officers in the next three years. In an effort to fill fifty vacant positions, the Richmond Police Department is offering $6,000 signing bonuses and seniority perks to veteran cops, as well as finder's fees for Richmond officers who poach their colleagues from other departments. This spring, following a particularly bloody few months, the Oakland City Council began a $2.4 million drive to hire 63 additional cops by next January. According to Sergeant John Madarang, who supervises the recruiting effort, the department has flooded Oakland with job fairs, bus and BART advertisements even a forty-foot banner hanging from police headquarters in an effort to meet the deadline. "I think we're doing a pretty good job," he says. "If we don't meet it, we'll be pretty close to it."
If they pull it off, they'll be lucky. Cities throughout the country are facing a critical police shortage; The Washington Post has reported that at least 80 percent of police agencies have been unable to hire enough cops. According to Ron Cottingham, the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, public safety agencies in Los Angeles County are understaffed to the tune of four thousand officers. The pay is great, and the pension plan, in which cops can make 90 percent of their salary upon retirement, can't be beat. But for some reason, fewer Americans are willing or able to become police officers. A number of explanations have been put forward: that the obesity epidemic has left us too fat to chase crooks, or the high cost of housing has steered candidates to less expensive parts of the country. One factor barely mentioned, however, may be the biggest problem of all: the war in Iraq.
The military has always served as a farm system for law enforcement, as former soldiers return to civilian life looking for work and equipped with combat training, a sense of discipline, and a familiarity with paramilitary command structures. According to Madarang, the Oakland Police Department has pulled out all the stops to woo military personnel, flying out to job fairs at Fort Pendleton near San Diego and Fort Lewis in Washington. When asked how the nation's wartime commitments have affected his efforts, Madarang said, "I'm not sure. I know that all the other agencies I talk to expect the pool to pick up as the war in Iraq ends." John Firman, the research director for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, was similarly ambivalent. "There's no answer to that question, because there are almost eighteen thousand police agencies in America," he said. "It's all different."
But consider the following numbers. According to spokesman Sheldon Smith, the United States Army plans to recruit thirty thousand additional troops in the next few years, eating into the pool of potential police officers. An essay posted on the Defense Department's employment Web page boasts that 140,000 security and counterterrorism jobs have been created since September 11, and public and private security spending has grown with each subsequent year. As police recruiters race to safeguard their cities from a new crime wave, they have run into a new, unexpected source of competition.
In addition, according to the most recent Pentagon figures, 2,832 military personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another 13,142 have been wounded so badly they were unable to return to duty. It seems at least a little indelicate to notice that these men and women are not exactly available for a career in law enforcement.
Even when soldiers return home, thousands may simply be too traumatized for police work. According a study conducted by Army physician Charles Hoge and recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 17 percent of soldiers and Marines who returned from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan more than 51,000 screened positive for anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. In addition, the study covered only personnel returning from the first year of combat, and experts agree that the true number is probably higher, as soldiers instinctively suppress their emotions or are simply too embarrassed to admit weakness. Police departments employ a rigorous mental screening process, but some soldiers may not even know the extent of their trauma until they find themselves in Oakland, patrolling dangerous neighborhoods after midnight.
Oakland Police Lieutenant Dave Downing oversees the department's training unit, where all potential recruits are screened for physical and mental fitness. In another life, he's a reservist with the Air Force and spent two years doing counterintelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Downing, we're much less likely to see severe post-traumatic stress disorder among the troops he came into contact with. "It's just different from the way it was in Vietnam," he says. "Those guys were drafted. Here, you have an all-volunteer force. ... I don't believe we'll have as high an incident of it as we have before."
But according to Frank Gusman, the director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the number of soldiers reporting mental illness was much higher than anticipated, and their emotional problems will resonate throughout the communities they return to. "This is a bigger public health problem than people realized," he says. "We're not going to be able to tell until maybe a few years from now, when this thing is finally over. We'll be able to go back and look at how many of these people have been struggling with employment, or not going to continue their education, or will struggle with divorce."
For communities near military bases, or Southern states with a tradition of military service, the last three years of conflict have been deeply, tragically personal. For white-collar communities like those in the East Bay, they've been something you watch on TV. But sooner or later, as our cities undergo a new wave of violent crime and our leaders can't find police officers to protect us, we'll all begin to understand the human cost of this war.
Seven Days - March 22, 5:57 PM
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