For the last seven years – whether crime was up or down – the Oakland police department has regularly busted its budget. Big time.

The main culprit is overtime pay, and it adds up pretty quickly. Starting pay for an Oakland cop is $69,000, and it increases with experience. But with overtime pay and various shift differentials, officers often earn more than double their base salaries, according to the city’s salary records.

“More people are going out on disability retirement than ever before,” Kozicki said. “They’re not old people, they’re between 30 and 40 years old. They wake up and they can’t see. It’s not that they really can’t see, it’s that they can’t see working at OPD for the next 15 years.”

Positions also lie empty despite the best intentions of the city council that specified more money for community policing. Half of two graduating police academy classes were supposed to become community police officers. Their salaries were to have been paid from a series of special funds outside the city’s general budget, including money voters approved in Measure Y three years ago.

But a legal settlement in 2003, stemming from a police misconduct lawsuit, resulted in many officers being reassigned out of the patrol and criminal investigation divisions. So all of those graduating police officers had to fill in the gaps, and their salaries come from police department funds rather than the special funds.

Replacing these officers is especially hard. Deborah Edgerly, the city administrator, estimated in a memo to the city council that the reassignments alone will cost the city $4 million this fiscal year. .

Captain Eric Breshears described the patrol desk as seriously understaffed with officers desperately trying to move to other departments.

“As captains we are working at reducing overtime as much as possible, and we’ve seen some reductions,” he said. “A lot of the overtime is filling vacancies and it’s hard on everyone.”

In the end, despite promises of doubled salaries, it’s hard to keep police officers.

“A lot of people who come in now have a lack of career ambition and are here for the money,” Kozicki said. “People are quitting at numbers we’ve never seen before. People get into the academy and say hell no I don’t want to do this. Because the market is so competitive we’re not hiring the best of the best – we’re hiring who we can.”
In one typical instance, a field training officer whose base salary was $87,172.81 in 2006, actually earned $244,612.77. As mayor that year, the most recent for which salary figures are available, Jerry Brown made just $115,371.88.

Here’s how it happens:

A perceived rise in crime leads to a public outcry for more police officers. The city boosts funding for police and tries to recruit more officers. But there aren’t a lot of applicants, partly because of the high levels of violence. So, existing officers have to work more overtime, and the grim cycle continues.

The more the city council earmarks for public safety, the more the cops seem to spend on overtime. Since 2001 the city council has increased the Oakland Police Department budget by about $90 million. In 2007, despite a sizeable $11 million budget boost, the police department has racked up an overtime bill of $26 million.

“We are under-budgeted for overtime, given that we always exceed it, and we always exceed it after being directed to do things by the city council and officials,” Captain David Kozicki said.

Kozicki, who has been on the force for 26 years, blames the city council for chronically mismanaging the police budget. One of the main problems, he said, is that the police often have to patrol special events, such as festivals or games at the McAfee Coliseum on top of already extended patrol hours.

“Many of these special events, they tell us to police, like a festival or parade,” Kozicki said. “We say that will cost $60,000 and they say we can only give you 20. The cops don’t put on these events, the friends of council members do.”

A number of captains and officers in the police department said they were frustrated by what they believe is an inability of city council members to decide where public safety money should be spent. While some clearly welcome the extra overtime pay, they said it leads inevitably to bad morale when officers are mandated to work 60-hour weeks for months at a time. That compounds problems in a department already under intense scrutiny by the community. “If the political leaders are talking about money, then we’re overspending, but when they talk about crime, then we’re never doing enough,” Kozicki said. “These two conversations never seem to happen at the same time.”

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, acknowledged that the council has simply tried to throw money at public safety.

“We need to recognize that we have not done a good job of managing the budget,” he said. “No one has really been held accountable. We are the ones responsible for making these decisions in the end.”

The council already has budgeted a nearly $20 million increase in the police budget over the next two years, bringing it to $216 million by 2009. De La Fuente said the planned re-organization of the police department into three main districts starting next year will force better accountability within the department for how police resources, including money, are spent.

He also made clear that he will not back further increases in the police department budget until the department has filled all 803 positions approved by the city council. The department currently has about 100 vacancies.

“We’ve allocated enough resources,”De La Fuente said. “I don’t think it’s a question anymore of money. What it boils down to is that we’ve spent double on public safety and have no idea what it really went to.”

A midcycle evaluation of the police budget this June by the city administrator Deborah Edgerly found that neither money to pay trainees nor for uniforms had been in approved in the department’s final budget.

Regularly omitting such items is a sign of fiscal irresponsibility for both the city council and department, said Michael Coleman the League of California Cities principal fiscal policy advisor.

Oakland is not the only city in California with public safety budgeting problems he said. All urban cities are currently having problems with police recruitment, which leads to overspending in many cities.

“Oakland is a big city and has urban issues that other cities don’t have,” he said. “It has challenges in law enforcement and fire [fighting] and [the city] imposed on itself higher levels of staffing that they then have to meet.”

In the end, bad budgeting practices come back to haunt the budget writers, Coleman said.

Nobody in city government would dispute that, but in the meantime the problem driving the police department’s overtime budget is an inability to fill vacancies.

The high starting salary and good benefits are the main reasons people go into the police academy, said Sgt. Robert Glock an officer in the training department of the police. Contrary to popular wisdom, he maintains that the Oakland Police Department is one of the best in the state at recruiting people.

The recruitment problem is a nationwide one, Glock said. Being a police officer does not hold the same glamour it once did.

the politicians are not always consistent in their spending priorities. While De La Fuente and the city council recently have been urging the police department to bring staffing up to the 803 personnel level, the city council actually froze hiring on some positions within the department and lowered the amount of money spent on recruitment in the fiscal years 2003 to 2005.

There are currently police department vacancies at every level, from patrol officers to administrative staff and dispatchers. And despite spending more money and time on recruitment recently, the police department has only had a net gain of 28 officers since last year.

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