OAKLAND -- The police department that welcomed 36 cadets into its ranks during a joyful ceremony Friday is markedly different from the one that six months ago graduated its first academy in more than four years.
There is a new interim chief, command staff and crime-fighting plan.
But much to the chagrin of city leaders desperate to beef up the ranks of Oakland's finest, one thing hasn't changed: the number of cops.
Oakland had 611 officers on March 22 -- its lowest staffing level in 17 years -- before graduating a fresh batch of 37 cadets. After a half-year of resignations and retirements, Oakland once again was down to 611 officers before Friday's graduation.
For the hundreds of friends, family members and fellow officers that nearly filled Oakland's Scottish Rite Center on Friday to honor one of the most diverse crop of police academy graduates in city history, the department's stubborn staffing shortfall was a problem for another day.
But inside City Hall and police headquarters there is concern that instead of rebuilding a police force that five years ago topped 800 officers, the academies so far have only kept it from further withering away.
"We're on a stationary bicycle at this point," police union President Sgt. Barry Donelan said Thursday. "We're pedaling like mad but going nowhere."
The City Council has authorized six consecutive police academies over three years -- each one with a $5 million price tag -- to solidify police staffing at about 700 officers by the middle of 2015.
But the first two academies haven't produced as many officers as anticipated, while resignations and retirements have climbed to an average of more than five per month.
Friday's graduating class was expected to produce 40 recruits and bring the force up to 660 officers for the first time since late 2010. Instead the 36 graduates, who still must undergo 20 weeks of field training, will increase staffing to 647 officers -- 18 fewer than the 665 officers authorized in the city's budget.
The lack of progress has led Oakland's court-appointed police overseer to call for the department to start recruiting veteran officers from outside agencies and take measures to reduce the dropout rate at police academies.
Lawmakers are considering proposals for boosting officer morale, providing incentives for older officers to hold off on retirement, and enforcing additional financial penalties for younger officers who leave for other departments.
Councilwoman Libby Schaaf said she will propose a law that would require the police chief to have a plan in place to add officers -- be it by hiring laterals or signing up recruits to attend police academies held by outside agencies -- when staffing drops below the budgeted level.
"What I'm worried about is if every month we're falling short, we could potentially end up with fewer officers than we have today," she said Thursday.
Police staffing became a paramount issue as major crimes increased 20 percent over the past four years while the department lost more than one-quarter of its officers.
The current shortfall has its roots in the financial crisis that resulted in the city laying off 80 officers in 2010 and putting a hold on academies.
The threat of layoffs led many junior officers to depart for other agencies. Only 40 percent of the cadets who enrolled in the four academies before the layoff are still with the department, according to police records. Of the 47 cadets who entered the department's 162nd academy in 2007, none of whose graduates got laid off, only 17 are Oakland police officers.
Rebuilding the department presents a challenge, law enforcement experts said. Oakland can't afford to hire the 900 officers that the department says it needs, but it also now risks losing officers to other agencies that offer comparable or higher pay and demand less work.
"I think Oakland presents some unique challenges," said Police Executive Research Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler. "You've got economic issues, you've got crime issues and you've got challenges regionally."
Interim Chief Sean Whent said the department has taken steps to ensure that future academies graduate at least 40 officers. While this past academy started out with 51 trainees, the next academy scheduled to start Sept. 30 will begin with 59 trainees.
"If we start with a few more, then we should graduate a few more," he said.
Whent also said the department was reviewing its recruiting practices to get more qualified candidates. Recruits fluent in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese are especially important, he said, because residents who only speak those languages are less likely to report crimes.
At Friday's ceremony, Whent told the graduates to "remain positive and not become discouraged.
"Always remember that Oakland is full of great people," he said, "and it is our job to protect them from the small group of individuals intent on depriving them of their rights to live free of crime and the fear of crime."
Mayor Jean Quan thanked the cadets for choosing Oakland. "You are our first priority," she said. "Public safety is our first priority."
The academy's valedictorian Mario Farjado noted the many challenges facing the city and said there was no challenge too big for his fellow officers. "In situations where all bets are off and no other options are on the table," he said, "there is one organization that can always be counted on: OPD."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435
Oakland graduated 36 police cadets Friday, including several officers with a family legacy in East Bay law-enforcement. Officer Gregory Rosin, is the son of retired Oakland police Sgt. David Rosin and the brother of Officer Robert Rosin. Matthew Galvin is the son of Berkeley police officer Ed Galvin and Ja-Ney Meeks is the daughter of retired Oakland police Lt. James Meeks. Below is a complete list of graduating officers: