How Big Should OPD be?

Over the last year Oaklanders, like people in most other American cities, have been heatedly debating the size and cost of their police force. This debate began with the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and has gotten more intense as murder rates have spiked in cities around the country since. In this blog post we would like to share some current research in an attempt to inform this debate with some data.

In a recent publication of the National Bureau of Economic Research, four professors from the disciplines of criminology, public affairs and economics looked at the effect of the size of police forces on the homicide rate in American cities. That paper, titled Police Size and Civilian Race, a summary of which can be found here, finds that an increased number of police on a force result in fewer homicides, except for the cities in the south and Midwest with the largest black populations. Using data for 242 cities from the FBI, and other public data sources, for the years 1981 and 2018, the researchers found that each new police officer added to a city’s police force prevents between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides annually. This means that to save one additional life each year a city would have to add 10 and 17 new police officers, at an estimated annual cost of between $1.3 and $2.2 million.

In the cities in which the homicide rates drop, the researchers found that they drop more among black people and thus more police save black lives at about twice the rate of white lives. Furthermore, more police also reduce other serious crimes, like robbery, rape, and aggravated assault. What is driving this drop in crime isn’t arrests for these serious crimes, because expanded police forces usually arrest fewer suspects for serious crimes, rather it is the presence of more police officers.

But, at the same time, the authors have found that as police forces get bigger, they arrest more people for what some call quality of life crimes – such disorderly conduct, public intoxication, drug possession, and loitering. The authors found that Black people are disproportionately arrested for such crimes and thus burdened with court fees and brought into the criminal justice system.

The authors have no explanation for why the effect of the size of the police force on homicide rates differs from some cities to other, and they plan to conduct further research to find out, but while they are doing so we want to pivot to think about what this means for Oakland. 

Given Oakland’s demographics, it seems that the research findings point to the following three things 

  1. More police in Oakland should lead to a drop in homicides
  2. More police in Oakland will likely lead to more arrests of black people for quality-of-life crimes and more involvement of black youth in the criminal justice system
  3. We should advocate for the first and work to find alternate solutions to the second 

As of the date of this article (9/29) we are at 102 homicides, which is horrifically high. Oakland City Council recently voted to add one more (a fifth) Police Academy over the next two years. This is a step in the right direction but Make Oakland Better Now! has recommended adding a sixth. Our position is that OPD is seriously understaffed, and that the community suffers from that understaffing. Oakland’s Police Academy is the way that new sworn officers are commonly added to the force. There have been “lateral transfers” in the past, which are officers who are trained & employed by other departments, and then hired by Oakland, but the experience as related by OPD is that the lateral transfers don’t tend to work out, precisely because they do not have the training required by OPD. OPD has been under a consent decree for many years, and its training in constitutional policing is very thorough; hence, OPD hires sworn officers almost exclusively through its Police Academies, and hence more academies are needed as OPD loses officers.

At the same time, the Oakland Police Department, the Oakland Public Safety Committee, and the Oakland Police Commission all need to work to develop ways to ensure that black Oaklanders, especially black youth, are not disproportionately arrested for non-violent crimes. The goal of the OPD should be to make the community safe, and not to earn the distrust of those whom they are sworn to protect. It is time that we figure out how to make a safer and better Oakland for all. 

Officers leave OPD for many reasons. Some retire: OPD has great retirement benefits. Some go to other police departments, either for a promotion or to escape the constant scrutiny of the Monitor for the consent decree, the scrutiny of Police Commission, or the scrutiny of the community at large. And some are either fired or are threatened with discipline such that they decide to go elsewhere. The reasons for the attrition are discussed at most of the Oakland Public Safety Committee meetings, but since this involves personnel matters, no details are given. We are left with the simple fact that we are losing sworn officers at a rate that must be replaced by those coming through the Police Academy; given current rates of attrition and graduation the estimate from the City Administrator was that we would remain about even, at the current number of around 700 officers, which is lower than we have had in many years, even with the 5 police academies. Every time this comes up in Public Safety, people yell at whoever is representing OPD, saying “stop the attrition!”. That is silly; attrition happens for a reason, and if these officers cannot stand being in a constitutionally run police force, they should leave. Adding people is a gift, it means we can add more women, more people of color, more Oakland residents. But what we do need to change is the “yield” of the academies: at present, usually half or less of those who enter an academy actually make it onto the force, so the yield is very low. Every exclusive college in the US has had to deal with problems of low yield, this is not a new problem. And the better schools, for instance UC Berkeley, have devised ways to increase their yield in some programs by being better at the selection process to begin with, by adding mentoring and cohort formation, by intentionally following every single student, helping them to succeed. This needs to happen with OPD. 

And, we all need to help increase the trust in OPD. The new chief, LeRonne Armstrong, is well known and trusted, an Oakland native who works closely with the Monitor and the Police Commission. We need to give him some space, and to stop equating the 2021 force with those of previous years. Dumping on OPD every time something happens anywhere in the US is just not helpful.

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

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