As crime has remained at high levels in Oakland over the past few years, there's been a growing call in the city to allocate tens of millions in additional dollars to the police department to hire more cops. And while it's true that Oakland has fewer police officers per capita than similar cities nationwide, public records show that Oakland already dedicates a higher percentage of its budget to its police department than comparable cities with high crime rates. The reason that Oakland has fewer cops yet spends more money than other cities on policing per capita is that its officers are among the highest paid in the nation, according to research from UC Berkeley.
Yet over the past fifteen years, as the police department's spending has consistently grown at a faster rate than the city's general fund budget, Oakland leaders have done little to address OPD's unusually high costs. Instead, politicians have responded by proposing to give the department even more money. Mayor Jean Quan's proposed budget for the next two years aims to hire approximately fifty new police officers, and doing so will require spending another $24 million because of recruiting and training costs. The budget proposal currently under review by the city council would allocate approximately half of the $48.5 million in new revenues that the city estimates it will collect in the next two years to the police department, bringing OPD's share of the city's general purpose fund to 42 percent — a number that is higher than nearly every other city in the country. Under Quan's proposed budget, funds for many other city services would be held flat, or cut in real terms, in order to pay for the police department's latest spending surge.
At the same time, interviews and public records show that the police department has repeatedly wasted resources and failed to enact reforms that could bring down its costs, reduce crime, and decrease the need for more police expenditures. A recent review of the department by leading law enforcement experts criticized OPD for failing to properly focus on solving felonies to lower the city's violent crime rate. Instead, the department has allocated most of its resources over the years toward patrol, a tactic that has failed to reduce crime and thus has fueled demands for more spending on police.
City leaders also have not addressed proposals by community organizations and members of the union SEIU 1021 to civilianize numerous jobs within OPD as way to drive down the price of policing. In addition, if OPD could be brought into compliance with the federal consent decree that still hangs over the department, it likely would produce cost savings for the city, according to those who have worked on the court-mandated reforms over the past decade. Such changes, for example, would eliminate the need to pay federal monitors, outside lawyers, and expensive legal settlements related to police misconduct.
The question of whether Oakland can reduce the cost of policing is one of the biggest ones confronting the city — both now and in the future — yet over the past decade city officials have failed to adequately address it. As a result, if the city continues to direct such a large portion of its revenues to the police department without implementing substantial reforms, critics note that Oakland could find itself in a position of having little to no money for anything else.
Oakland's police officers are the city's highest paid employees — by far. And city records show that salary expenses for the police department represent the second largest single expenditure for the city each year. Only principle and interest payments on Oakland's various debts account for a larger budgetary outlay.
Next year, the total compensation for all of Oakland's sworn officers will be roughly 40 percent of the city's total payroll out of the general fund. Oakland plans to pay its sworn police officers $120 million in salaries and fringe and retirement benefits, compared to just $104 million for all non-sworn employees. This disparity comes in spite of the fact that Oakland's police officers account for fewer than 20 percent of the city's employees. Counting all city employees paid out of all funds within the city's entire billion-plus-dollar budget, OPD officers receive one quarter of every payroll dollar spent.*
"Those are pretty startling figures," said Joe Keffer, an organizer with SEIU 1021. "What the average police officer is making is more than double than what other city employees are making. When you have so much money going to such a small group of the city's workforce, it really takes away from the overall ability of the city to provide other services like Head Start, libraries, fixing potholes, maintaining public improvements — all the other needs of the city."
According to OPD's own payroll data from last year, 179 officers took home more than $200,000 in total compensation (including salary, overtime, medical, dental, and pension payments from the city). About 160 police officers earned more than Mayor Quan last year. Some Oakland cops — including three patrol cops, a sergeant, a captain, and OPD's recently retired chief, Howard Jordan — topped out with total take-home pay and benefits worth more than $300,000.
OPD base salaries are not out of line with the pay offered by other Bay Area cities — although they're much higher than comparable cities nationwide. California's high cost of living results in local police departments offering bigger paychecks. But where Oakland's cops really drive up the expense is in overtime and other forms of special compensation.
Last year, 79 OPD officers earned 50 percent or more above their annual salaries just from overtime payments. Five OPD officers actually earned more in overtime than they did from their salary. In one case, an officer's annual salary of $98,000 was dwarfed by overtime pay of $164,000. This officer's total compensation added up to $337,000 (the officer's identity is not disclosed in OPD's payroll data). Approximately 600 OPD officers booked some amount of overtime in 2012, adding up to a departmental total of $15 million. Quan's proposed budget for the next two years assumes at least a $2 million increase in officer overtime pay so that, in 2015, the city expects to spend $17 million.
Retirement and medical benefits also drive up costs for the city's entire workforce. But again, OPD's costs have outpaced the rest of the city. According to public records, medical insurance costs for civilian employees have risen 39 percent since 2006. But for OPD's sworn officers, medical costs have jumped 50 percent during the same period. In 2012, fringe benefits paid to OPD officers — including medical insurance, workers compensation, dental and vision insurance, disability, and unemployment — added up to $36 million, while the rest of the city's workforce only received $20 million.
In fact, the total of all fringe benefits paid to OPD officers is actually 2.7 times larger than the entire retirement contribution the city must make for the rest of its civilian workforce. So even while the city administration points to rising CalPERS contributions as a growing expense in coming years, OPD officers' fringe benefits will still be more expensive. Overtime paid to OPD officers will remain roughly equal to the total retirement contributions the city must pay into CalPERS for its civilian employees — $16 million and $17 million for 2014 and 2015.
Jeff Levin of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers also noted that the city's civilian workforce has largely absorbed increased city contribution rates for CalPERS in recent years. "The rate that PERS charges the city for the employers' share of retirement has risen by 5 percent of employees' salaries, but five years ago civilian employees agreed to increase their contribution by that same 5 percent," he said. "As a result, the city saw no increase in its total contribution rate for civilian pensions because the employees absorbed all of it."
What Other Cities Do
UC Berkeley School of Law Professor Justin McCrary, who is also an economist, has studied the cost of police officers in hundreds of US cities. McCrary's data shows that Oakland's cops each cost about $220,000 annually. However, this figure does not factor in the cost of the multimillion-dollar police academies Oakland must run to train new recruits. Even so, McCrary's estimate is $45,000 higher than what OPD's payroll data shows as the average compensation for its current officers. McCrary said that factoring in the cost of equipping and supporting each officer is necessary to determine the true price tag attached to each cop a city employs.
McCrary's data also reveals that only fifteen other cities face higher costs per cops, and half of these cities are much wealthier per capita than Oakland, including Sunnyvale, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. All are, perhaps unsurprisingly, in California.
For Oakland's true peers — mid-sized cities with high crime rates and relatively weak tax bases due to deindustrialization and suburban flight, like St. Louis, Memphis, and Atlanta — the per officer price-tag is less than half of what Oakland currently pays. St. Louis officers cost only $104,000 annually. Cops in Memphis and Atlanta cost just $99,000 and $97,000, respectively. As a result, those cities can afford to hire more officers per capita while spending less money overall on policing than Oakland. Even other cities with high costs of living, such as New York and Boston, pay officers much less than Oakland does.
McCrary, who has advocated for increasing Oakland's police officer count as a means of reducing crime, acknowledges the prohibitive cost of hiring cops in Oakland. In a recent interview, he told us that Oakland's inability to increase police officer levels is "fundamentally a revenue problem."
"It's naive to think Oakland itself could fund such an increase in revenue to pay for this," he said of hiring lots more police. "The funds would have to come from state government because Oakland has no capacity to raise this."
The result of all of this is that Oakland spends a far higher percentage of its tax dollars on policing than nearly any other city in the nation. A survey of similar cities we conducted for this report shows that Oakland's cops capture a far larger share of the budget pie than cities of comparable size and with similarly high rates of violent crime.
In the 2010-11 fiscal year, Oakland shelled out 44 percent of its general fund to pay for policing. Most of this was used to pay officer salaries, overtime, and benefits. The only city of similar size with significant violent crime we could find that spends a similar proportion of its general fund budget on cops was Cleveland. That city allocated approximately 37 percent of its budget dollars to policing that year. Had Cleveland spent at Oakland's level of 44 percent, it would have meant increasing its police budget by $19 million — an expenditure that would have required cuts to other city services. And because Cleveland's cost per officer, according to McCrary's data, is only $95,000, Cleveland can purchase a lot more police services with a lot less money.
St. Louis and Detroit, which both have consistently higher rates of violent crime than Oakland, not only pay less than half of what Oakland does per officer, but also allocate much less as a proportion of their total general fund budgets to policing.
Decades of Sweet Deals
The Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA) is one of the strongest political forces in the city and plays hardball in contract negotiations, knowing that few politicians want to look soft on crime. The union successfully bargained with the city for decades to obtain lucrative increases in base pay, overtime, and pension and healthcare benefits.
The union's political juice inside City Hall is illustrated by the steady rise in OPD's spending as a percentage of the city's total general fund budget. In fiscal year 1996-97, approximately 35 percent of Oakland's general fund was consumed by OPD. Over the following sixteen years, OPD's budget grew to become more than 40 percent of all general fund outlays. The growth in OPD's budget exceeded the rate of growth in the overall general fund in eleven of the sixteen years.
The police union maintains its sweetheart deals with the city with the help of its political action committee, which funds attack ads against politicians the union believes will be unfriendly to its priorities. The union has strongly supported its allies on the Oakland City Council and spends thousands during elections to defeat opponents who are seen as "soft" on crime.
OPOA successfully convinced Oakland's councilmembers and successive mayors in the 1980s through mid-2000s to increase active police officer pay and compensation, and was able to resist cuts to pay and benefits during most economic downturns — even while other city employees were laid off or forced to accept furloughs and other givebacks.
"When you combine the cuts with the effects of inflation, our members have given up 25 percent of their wages and are living at three-quarters of the purchasing power that they had six years ago," said Levin of IFPTE 21. "While civilian members may not even remember what a COLA [cost of living adjustment] looks like, the police received a 4 percent COLA in July of 2008, and are receiving another 4 percent in 2014. So what we're still looking for is the fairness and the balance that the city administration claims it is pursuing."
The biggest single gain obtained by Oakland's cops was a five-year, 27-percent raise awarded by the city council during Mayor Jerry Brown's first term in 2001. Over the years, OPOA also successfully kept its pension contributions at zero, even as police unions in other cities were agreeing to contribute to their retirement plans.
The past two rounds of contract negotiations, in 2007 and 2010, were marked by acrimony and brinksmanship. In 2007, OPOA sent its contract negotiations to a labor arbitrator after declaring an impasse on overhauling the department's overtime and holiday pay rules as well as strict requirements on officer scheduling. The union won and negotiated a two-year contract extension that included a 4 percent pay bump in 2009.
In 2010, OPOA and the city were at loggerheads once again, as the city attempted to close a $30.5 million budget hole. In the middle of that year, the council voted to lay off eighty cops after OPOA refused to contribute anything to its pension plan unless the city guaranteed no layoffs for the next three years. Eventually, the city rehired 22 of the laid-off officers.
The next year, OPOA and the city finally agreed on a four-year contract that included a requirement that police officers contribute 9 percent of their salaries to their pensions — just like the rest of the city's workforce. In return, Oakland agreed not to lay off any officers for the duration of the contract and to give pay bumps of 2 percent in July 2014 and January 2015.
The deal also included slightly lower salaries for new hires — but not low enough to significantly bring down the price of policing. City leaders also have made no public moves this spring toward asking the police union to reopen its contract and help Oakland control costs.
Rashidah Grinage, the executive director of People United for a Better Life in Oakland, a police watchdog group, pointed to the 2010 contract negotiations and subsequent police layoffs as evidence that the majority of OPOA's members care more about their benefits packages than adequately staffing OPD. "Look at what happened when [the city] tried to roll back pay and contribute to their pension plan [in 2010], [the union] said, lay the younger officers off," Grinage said, referring to the OPOA membership voting to lay off eighty junior officers rather than agree to the city's proposed contract. "They caused the understaffing crisis we have because they wouldn't take a cut. The older officers didn't want their retirement benefits to be sacrificed."
OPOA officials did not respond to our request for comment.
Not only is spending per officer in Oakland grossly out of step with the rest of the country, but the police department misallocates resources, law enforcement experts say, thereby making the department less effective at reducing crime. This problem, in turn, results in even more calls for additional spending on police.
Over the years, the department has shortchanged its criminal investigations division, which high-priced consultants have repeatedly told the department is a mistake. Instead, OPD has directed the lion's share of its resources to patrolling high-crime areas of the city. In OPD's proposed $203 million budget for fiscal year 2013-14, the department plans to spend $111 million on its Field Operations Division, and just $26 million on criminal investigations.
As the Express reported last fall, OPD's investigations units are mismanaged and overburdened. In 2011, OPD solved just 29 percent of all homicides in the city. In 2012, it solved just 28 percent of the 131 homicides that year. The average homicide solve rate for California police departments is closer to 50 percent (see "Getting Away with Murder," 11/16/12).
The shortcomings of the Criminal Investigations Division were recently examined by the consulting firm headed by William Bratton, the former police chief of New York and Los Angeles. Bratton's team criticized OPD's investigations unit for its centralized structure and recommended that investigators be assigned to local districts in order to respond more quickly to incidents and gain familiarity with specific areas of the city. San Francisco PD follows this model. Bratton also recommended that OPD move the responsibility of investigating gun assaults away from homicide officers in order to lighten their caseloads.
"Local investigations of these crimes, conducted by investigators more familiar with the local shooters, local gangs, and local vendettas would likely result in more solvable cases and more cases with leads, even when the victim is uncooperative," the report stated. "Local investigators, using evidence from eyewitnesses and their own knowledge of the patterns of shootings and retaliation in the area, should be able to develop suspects in a larger number of cases."
Decisions about how to staff the homicide unit also have hampered the OPD's efficacy. Bratton's report determined that homicide was being seriously handicapped by department brass' decision to transfer several experienced sergeants from homicide to patrol. The new personnel, according to Bratton, are inexperienced and do not have the skill set required for their assignment. "The entire homicide unit is in a virtual training mode because many of the investigators assigned to the unit have no previous homicide investigations experience, and some have no previous investigative experience of any kind," the report stated.
OPD also has a dearth of sergeants, who are the field supervisors for the department. This is due in part to the high pay rate awarded to experienced officers. These officers can make a sergeant's pay easily while working overtime or taking on the role of acting sergeant, a position that doesn't require the same amount of testing or training as a full-fledged sergeant.
The lack of long-term, in-depth investigations also is seriously impacting OPD's ability to reduce crime. In April, more than three hundred OPD officers and federal agents raided a public housing complex in West Oakland, searching for drugs and guns. But the massive operation only resulted in the arrests of five people and the seizure of a relatively small amount of drugs. A follow-up raid resulted in several more arrests and the seizure of weapons, high-capacity magazines, heroin worth between $30,000 to $50,000 on the street, and $1,600 in cash, but an officer speaking on condition of anonymity told the Express that the operation was the result of a hasty investigation that lacked the level of depth and scrutiny needed to be truly successful.
The department's dysfunction also is driving away experienced officers with just the sort of expertise OPD needs to solve crimes. Sergeant Rich Andreotti, a 43-year-old San Francisco native who won an award from the Alameda County District Attorney's Office in 2011 for uncovering a plot to murder a witness, transferred last month to the San Francisco Police Department as an officer. And Sergeant Kyle Thomas, another well-respected supervisor who is trained as a helicopter pilot, also transferred over to SFPD in April as an officer.
Police like Andreotti and Thomas are the sort of experienced and competent supervisors that OPD needs in order to keep and nurture younger officers in order for the department to function effectively. Instead, officers like these are transferring to neighboring departments — and taking demotions to do it — rather than enduring OPD's dysfunction.
Rebalancing the Budget
One way to rein in the cost of cops in Oakland is to have lower-paid civilians handle jobs within OPD that do not require a highly paid officer to perform. "We reviewed positions within OPD five years ago and found more than 42 jobs that could be civilianized for a cost savings of millions," explained Jeff Hayman, a police evidence technician who worked with the union SEIU 1021 to survey OPD's payroll.
According to Hayman, civilianization of various jobs not only would mean savings on salaries shifted from expensive cops to cheaper civilian workers, it would also mean that OPD officers would rack up fewer forms of special compensation. Hayman said that OPD officers receive an extra 5 percent in pay above their base salaries just for working as evidence technicians, rather than fulfilling their normal roles.
An examination of OPOA's current contract with the city confirmed Hayman's point. There are eight other categories of premium pay for which OPD officers can stack on top of each other to obtain paychecks that are often double their base salaries.
In response to a request for information, OPD confirmed that as of May 2013 there were twenty officers also assigned to a task other than their permanent assignment due to a medical condition. There are even more who are working jobs like evidence technician, or who are receiving standby pay because of the lack of civilian employees to fulfill basic jobs that don't require highly paid officers.
A city report from 2008 identified 47 positions within OPD that were then being filled by sworn officers but could be carried out by civilians. These roles included four dispatchers, five evidence technicians, six service technicians, ten complaint investigators, and various desk jobs occupied by sergeants, lieutenants, and police officers whose pay was easily double the cost of a civilian in the same role. The report concluded that shifting these officers onto patrol and filling the positions with civilians would save at least $3.8 million. A 2005 report by the Police Executive Research Forum on OPD's job assignments found 58 positions that could be civilianized.
Another way to reduce costs is for the department to get a better handle on the problem of having so many officers who are being paid for not working at all. In response to a Public Records Act request, OPD indicated that, on average, 63 officers a week were out on medical leave in 2012. Having so many officers on medical leave at a time further drives up costs for the department, because it forces OPD to pay other cops overtime to fill shifts.
And, finally, one of the most effective ways for the department to cut expenses would involve complying with the federal consent decree, also known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA), on police misconduct. The consent decree has cost the city at least $6 million since 2003, according to a KTVU report from February 2013. Those costs are largely due to the expenditures related to independent monitoring teams that oversee OPD's federal reforms. Legal settlements for police-misconduct cases cost the city an additional $58 million from 2000 to 2010, and average $3.6 million per year from 2006 through 2012. Oakland also has paid out $1.3 million during the past year and a half for outside consultants retained to independently review misconduct cases related to Occupy Oakland, devise crime reduction plans for the department, and offer advice on community relations.
"The city is paying more money in police liability suits than San Jose and San Francisco combined and nearly twice over," civil rights attorney Jim Chanin noted. "We did the NSA because of this huge civil rights case called The Riders. Complying with the NSA would drastically reduce the city's liability."
*Editor's Note: We failed to note that Oakland's proposed 2013-2015 budget mixed police, fire, and other city employees in its "sworn" salaries category. Thus, we erroneously stated that OPD sworn salaries are double the civilian total. In fact, OPD officer salaries constitute 40 percent of the city's total general fund salaries. The $202 million Oakland has budgeted as total compensation for "sworn" employees next year includes $80 million for fire employees. Thus, Oakland's police will be paid $120 million in total compensation compared to the city's civilian employees, who will receive $104 million. In addition, our story stated that, out of the city's entire billion-plus-dollar budget, OPD officers receive almost half of every payroll dollar spent. But because the city doesn't break out OPD and fire payroll into separate categories in its public budget document, this figure includes fire and other employees as sworn officers of the city. The true proportion of OPD's share appears to be one quarter.
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