District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao. Credit: Courtesy Sheng Thao

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Councilmember Sheng Thao on Thursday announced that she wants to start a national recruiting effort to lure experienced police officers to Oakland and offer a $50,000 hiring bonus, as part of a plan to boost the Oakland force’s ranks. 

With shootings and homicides on the rise, Thao said recruiting officers already trained—as opposed to adding more police academies—is the quickest way to fill the Oakland Police Department’s 60 vacant officer positions that are funded as part of the current 2021-2023 budget, which included money for 737 officers.

“This legislation would enhance not only our ability to hire officers quickly but will also support the critical work of making sure our police department is diverse, inclusive, and reflects our values here in Oakland,” Thao said at a news conference Thursday. 

Thao is proposing the city hire an independent recruiting firm to conduct a nationwide search for police officers. The firm would be instructed to disqualify officers with a history of misconduct and seek out women applicants and applicants from diverse backgrounds. 

Any “laterals”—officers who move from one department to another— would receive a $50,000 hiring bonus, but would have to give it back if they left the Oakland force within 18 months and part of the bonus if they left before five years, she said. 

Over the years, OPD has struggled to attract officers from other departments. Recently, Chief LeRonne Armstrong publicly stated that many of the officers who have applied to join OPD have not been up to the department’s standards. A previous attempt to quickly beef up OPD’s ranks after budget cuts during the Great Recession led to looser standards and many problem officers joined the department, later being accused of crimes like armed false imprisonment, attempted rape, drunk driving, and misconduct, including drunken home invasions.

To help increase the number of Oakland residents working at OPD, the District 4 councilmember, who has announced she is running for mayor in 2022, wants to offer a $20,000 hiring bonus for residents who complete the academy and join OPD. 

Calls for increasing police staffing have intensified as Oakland’s homicide rate is reaching a level not seen for nearly a decade. So far this year Oakland police have investigated 127 killings, the highest number since 2012, when there were 131 homicides. 

Even experienced police officers would need to undergo training in order to become Oakland cops. Those hired outside of the state would need to meet Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training standards to work in California. And many of Oakland’s policies and procedures are more rigorous than other departments in California, in part because of OPD’s federal court reform program, so even new officers hired within the state would need extra training.

On Monday, Mayor Libby Schaaf and Councilmembers Loren Taylor and Treva Reid announced their own proposal to hire more police officers by adding more police academies as well as reversing 50 police positions frozen in the budget approved by City Council this past summer. Details of their proposal are expected to be made public Friday, and presented to council on Tuesday. Reid and Taylor are also running for mayor next year. 

The dueling plans come as the Oakland Police Department’s ranks dropped below the threshold required under Measure Z, a voter-approved parcel tax that raises millions for police, fire and violence prevention programs. The city can no longer collect the tax if the number of officers falls below 678. As of Monday, OPD had 677 officers. 

Schaaf and OPD officials have said staffing has dropped due to higher attrition rates, as officers leave for other police departments, retire, or quit. 

Thao said she is also supportive of adding another police academy class, which would be in addition to the one she successfully lobbied for in September. But she said if a new class of recruits started today, the officers wouldn’t be on the streets fast enough. 

“Academies take a long time to produce results,” the councilmember said. “And Oakland is facing the highest homicide rate in almost a decade. We need aggressive approaches to this crisis and we need it now.” 

David DeBolt reports on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.