When Anthony Batts took over as Oakland police chief in late 2009, he launched a major public relations blitz to promote his crime reduction strategy. Batts said OPD had too few officers to respond to the crushing volume of 911 calls. It was time to set priorities.

Crimes that did not constitute an immediate danger or where there was no criminal suspect still on the scene would have to take a back seat to more serious cases.

Under this system of rationing, residential burglaries, auto burglaries and vandalism joined a list of 44 crimes where the police would no longer take a report over the phone. Those crime victims were told to file a computerized report.

William Bratton. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
William Bratton. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

This not only telegraphed to any and everybody that OPD would not aggressively investigate certain crimes, but the laser focus on reducing street homicides in poor African-American and Latino communities created further polarization between people who live in flatland neighborhoods plagued by shootings, and other residents, whose primary concerns are burglaries and robberies.

On Wednesday, as I listened to crime consultant Robert Wasserman's presentation at a town hall meeting about public safety at City Hall, I had a sense of déjà vu. "Oakland has more 911 calls for its population than any other city in the U.S. It's way off the map," Wasserman said.

Echoing Batts' words, Wasserman said OPD had to cut back on dispatching officers to 911 calls. He said people call the police department emergency line for situations that are not in OPD's purview.

Yet the fact is, OPD is so short-staffed it often can't dispatch officers to crimes that merit a police response. Just ask someone who has been robbed how long it took for an officer to arrive, if ever.

OPD did not send an officer when Jerry Budin's wife and 20-year-old daughter were mugged outside their home near Piedmont Avenue. When his elderly neighbor was robbed, Budin says, a police officer came to her home the next day.

"The city cannot wait five years or longer to add another 200 officers," Budin said, speaking at the town hall meeting. "I'll be gone before five years ever arrives, and people like me will be gone."

I once spent a few hours in the 911 call center, watching as frustrated dispatchers triaged emergency calls. Yes, there are people who, as Wasserman says, should be calling some agency other than OPD.

But the real issue is, there are simply too few officers on the streets to respond to Oakland's high level of crime.

You can't gloss over that by calling on Oakland residents "to ask not what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city."

Only city leaders can take action to address the issue of critical police understaffing.

It's important for Oakland residents to attend upcoming town halls to make sure that their voices and concerns are heard. City officials have hired Wasserman's consulting group, Strategic Policy Partnership, to help develop a short-term strategy for producing an immediate impact on crime as well as a longer-term plan for sustaining violence reduction. William Bratton, the world-renowned former chief in Los Angeles and New York, whose tenures in those cities coincided with substantial declines in crime, is part of a team that was hired under Wasserman's contract.

The consultants say they will focus on reducing crime in three areas: homicides, burglaries and robberies.

It's not clear how they will accomplish that when OPD barely has 600 officers and is stretched to capacity just trying to respond to street shootings.

On Wednesday, Bratton called Oakland's crime problem a "winnable situation."

That kind of confidence is a welcome departure from the defeatism that we so often hear in discussions about public safety.

Let's hope that it translates into action that can finally help Oakland begin to turn the tide on crime.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com.