After nearly 20 years, the Oakland Police Department has achieved full compliance with all but one of the 52 court-ordered reform tasks. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland lost an average of seven officers a month last year but there was little information on the exact reasons why. Chief LeRonne Armstrong recently began requiring officers to participate in exit interviews with the city’s human resources department to understand what’s happening. 

The first batch of 30 exit interviews with city HR representatives provides a snapshot of some of the reasons why officers are quitting the department, and provides information city leaders hope to use to better retain officers.  

Retention of officers is part of a larger discussion between council and the Oakland Police Department to maintain the ranks while making sure OPD retains and recruits more female officers, and others from diverse backgrounds who reflect the demographics of the city. 

There is also a renewed push to attract police applicants who live in Oakland, where only a tenth of the department’s officers currently reside. 

The Oaklandside examined data from recent officer exit interviews to better understand OPD’s attrition problems and recruitment efforts. 

OPD is losing officers—but it’s not an outlier

Exit interviews of police officers leaving the Oakland Police Department became mandatory in September at the urging of councilmembers who wanted a better understanding of why cops were departing. 

Eighty three Oakland officers left the department for various reasons last year, an average of seven a month. 

According to OPD’s latest staffing report, of the 83 officers who left last year, 45 resigned and 35 of those went to work for another police agency, while 18 officers retired and seven took a disability retirement. Two rookie cops were cut from the department during field training. Until a new officer completes field training, he or she is an at-will employee, meaning OPD can terminate them at any time for any lawful reason.

A total of five officers were terminated last year. 

According to state employment records, several rookie officers who trained at the department’s police academies left in recent years to agencies in Vacaville, El Dorado County, Hayward, Benicia, Concord, Redwood City, Seaside, San Jose, and Piedmont, among other places. 

Assistant Chief Darren Allison, at a public safety meeting held Tuesday, said OPD’s attrition rate boils down to feeling valued, “or believing what they do provides value to the community.” If an officer feels undervalued, they tend to leave, Allison said. 

Of the 30 officers who underwent an exit interview, nine stated “dissatisfaction with OPD leadership” as the reason for leaving, according to OPD’s latest staffing report, while seven said they left because of “dissatisfaction with city leadership.” Another seven officers cited “heavy discipline”; two others left for family reasons. A better job, relocating, federal oversight of OPD, low morale, and poor training/development were other reasons cited by individual officers.  

The largest known discipline cases last year were related to a police crackdown of a march for racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and an investigation of officers’ use of social media, including interacting with an Instagram account, run by a fired officer, which spread misogynist, racist, and anti-police-reform content. 

To be sure, attrition of officers is something many U.S. police departments faced during the pandemic and amid nationwide protests in 2020 over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. A Police Executive Research Forum survey of 194 law enforcement agencies found a 5% overall dip in the hiring rate among responding departments. Resignations in 2020-21 increased by 18% compared to the previous year, while retirements shot up to 45%, the study released last June found

Regionally, Allison said larger departments like OPD are losing officers to smaller departments, where attrition is not as much of a problem. 

A push to increase the share of female officers

While approving additional police academies last year, the City Council called on OPD to focus efforts on recruiting more women, who are underrepresented in the Oakland Police Department when compared to the general population, but above the national average when it comes to other police departments around the country.

Some on council have said the behavior of a handful of officers may be a reason why more women have not applied or remained at OPD. 

The department has worked to repair its image following a 2016 investigation in which  multiple officers were found to be involved in a sexual exploitation case, which led Mayor Libby Schaaf to liken OPD to a “frat house.” Four years later, the Instagram scandal hit, which U.S. District Judge William Orrick called “evidence of cultural rot” within OPD. 

Orrick, who oversees the department’s nearly 20 year attempt to complete federally mandated reforms, has been closely watching OPD’s recruitment efforts and recently praised the department for displaying progress in gender parity among the OPD workforce. The numbers have risen steadily each year since 2018, when women made up 13% of OPD, on par with U.S. law enforcement agencies across the country the following year.

At the end of 2021, OPD had 552 male officers and 108 female officers, or about 16% of the department. Nine of the officers who left last year were women, according to department data, and the same number departed the year prior. 

Councilmembers have pushed to eliminate barriers, including asking that OPD provide childcare at police academies, and have directed OPD to also focus efforts on recruiting more LGBTQ residents and people of color. Last year, the police department was 31.5% white, 28% Hispanic, 18.7% Black, and 18.5% Asian. 

“Doing so would help solve multiple problems, both to build a department more reflective of the community, [and] also this could reduce attrition by recruiting people who would be more likely to want to serve here and can improve community relations,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who has cited the Instragram and sex exploitation cases as creating a hostile work environment.

Just 10% of Oakland police officers live in Oakland

Along with recruiting more women and people with diverse backgrounds, councilmembers have been clear they’d like OPD to have more officers who are from Oakland or live in the town. 

As of the end of February, 66 officers, or about 10% of the department’s 673 cops, live here, according to records OPD released to The Oaklandside in response to a public records request. Of all cities where OPD officers live, Oakland is at the top. But other smaller cities are not far behind. 

More than a third of officers live in Contra Costa County, including 31 in Concord, 26 in Brentwood, 24 in Oakley, 19 in Antioch, and 13 in Richmond. Among the other top locations are: San Leandro (26 officers), Hayward (24), Tracy (22), San Francisco (20), and Castro Valley (19). 

Other Bay Area cities filled the majority of the top 20 locations. A total of 18 officers live in Walnut Creek, 17 in San Ramon and in Fairfield, 16 in Vacaville, 15 in Alameda and in San Jose, 14 in Livermore and in Manteca, and 13 in Dublin. 

A handful of officers have longer commutes. At least 28 officers live more than 60 miles away from Oakland. And 11 listed addresses more than 100 miles away in places like Yuba City, Rocklin, Placerville, El Dorado Hills, and Kelseyville. 

By comparison, eight of 32 Oakland Housing Authority officers—a separate department which patrols the city’s public housing—live in Oakland, or about 25%. The rest live in various cities throughout the greater Bay Area, according to data the housing authority released to The Oaklandside in response to a records request. 

On the extreme opposite end, nearly 80% of Vacaville cops live in that city’s two zip codes, records we obtained from Vacaville Police show. In the Contra Costa County city of Oakley, 74% of officers live in Oakley or nearby Brentwood and Discovery Bay. 

To be sure, such information does not reflect where an officer grew up; it only shows where they currently live. It could be that a cop who grew up in Oakland now lives in nearby Castro Valley. Living outside the city where you work is not unique to police officers. Many of the city’s firefighters live elsewhere. The Oakland Unified School District has struggled to attract teachers who already reside within the district. This year, 22% of teacher applicants were Oaklanders, and surveys have shown housing costs are a main reason teachers leave OUSD. 

Nonetheless, councilmember Noel Gallo said living where you work shows a deeper commitment to that community. “When you live in the city of Oakland you recognize the challenges we have,” Gallo said. “When I grew up, officers lived down the street from me, down the block. They were extremely helpful in calming down the neighborhood and were responsive.” 

Recently, OPD has made strides in recruiting more local applicants. Nearly 40% (15 of 39) of the recruits in OPD’s 187th Basic Academy, which began in November, are Oakland residents. The department has strengthened its outreach at Oakland community college and at high school sporting events and is targeting its marketing efforts more locally, department heads said. 

At a meeting in December, Oakland Police Commissioner Regina Jackson praised the progress. “I am pleased with the new academy that is a rooted in Oakland academy. I am hoping more people inside Oakland are the ones we can prioritize outreach to,” Jackson said.

David DeBolt reported 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.