OAKLAND -- Without enough officers to respond to 911 calls and patrol streets, Oakland has required police to work extra patrol shifts for the past 18 months -- a duration that law enforcement experts say appears unprecedented and could threaten public safety.

The mandatory overtime requirement began in October 2012 and isn't scheduled to end until next March when the department anticipates finally having enough officers to adequately staff the patrol division.

Officers have had to sign up to work the equivalent of two extra days per month for the past year-and-a-half. They also are sometimes ordered to extend shifts without warning to deal with illegal car rallies, protests, or high call volumes, officers said.

While officers understand that beats must be filled, mandatory overtime has become reviled by many who say it has sapped already low morale and contributed to resignations from the force.

Sgt. Barry Donelan, who heads the police union, issued a letter to council members earlier this year asking that the department curb its "addiction to mandatory overtime" and stop transferring officers out of patrol to fill other understaffed units.

"The city believes we should be operating as a 900-person department with 600 cops," Donelan said. "So they keep pouring on mandatory overtime."


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The issue could impact the campaign to extend a soon-to-expire property tax that funds 57 community-oriented police officers. Under the terms of the tax measure, those officers can't be assigned to help beef up patrol, much to the frustration of many in the police department. The police union, which helped bankroll the last two tax campaigns, has not yet taken a position on the extension scheduled to go before voters in November.

Police overtime is generally considered one of the perks of the job, with many officers happy to sign up for assignments that pad their paychecks.

But mandatory overtime is typically reserved for disasters or short-term operations, said Bryan Vila, a Washington State University professor and former Los Angeles sheriff's deputy who authored the book "Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue."

"I've never heard of mandatory overtime being used for longer than a year or so and even that is very long," Vila said.

Too much overtime, especially in Oakland where police face the highest volume of 911 calls in the state, could leave officers fatigued, over-stressed and mistake prone, Vila said. "Your risk of critical incidents and vehicle crashes goes up," he said. "Those cost a lot of money and so do the civil suits every time a police officer makes a mistake that is avoidable."

Police officials said they are concerned about overworking officers, but they haven't seen any tangible negative impacts from mandatory overtime.

The department is projected to overspend its overtime budget by $14 million this year, but vehicle collision rates and sick time have held steady and the number of officers on medical leave has declined, officials said. Officers are still signing up for most volunteer overtime assignments such as manning parades and sporting events. And, arrests are up this year while major crimes are down 13 percent.

"When you look at what has happened this last year ... we've used staff as efficiently and effectively as possible," Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa said. "Everyone has stepped up and we've been having a tremendous impact on crime."

The need for mandatory overtime stems from the Great Recession when Oakland lost more than one quarter of its officers and went four years without holding a police academy to replenish the ranks.

"We just kept dropping," Figueroa said. "Once we hit 240 officers in patrol there was no other way to do it other than to have mandatory overtime." Patrol staffing currently stands at 223 officers.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department has had mandatory overtime for about a year to staff its jail, although the requirement isn't as burdensome as Oakland's. The California Highway Patrol and major Bay Area police departments said they have not had to resort to mandatory overtime. That includes San Jose, which last year started requiring detectives to work patrol one day a month to help cover beats.

In Oakland, mandatory overtime is only required of the department's 490 police officers. Those with higher ranks, such as sergeant, are immune from the requirement as are the more than 70 officers who are either on injury leave, light duty or rookies in field training. Officers sign up for open shifts every few months. Over the next three months, able-bodied, veteran officers will have to cover an average of 262 patrol shifts per week, according to a police report.

Police leaders have limited flexibility in assigning officers to fill patrol beats and numerous other units that focus on crime suppression and investigations. While the force is back up above 650 officers -- still nearly 200 fewer than five years ago -- many of those are either rookies still in training or officers tied to special funding sources that specify certain roles such as working in and around schools.

By far the biggest reservoir of officers unavailable for patrol are the 57 funded by the soon-to-expire Measure Y, which limited the officers to working on community issues or serving on crime reduction teams.

"Measure Y is a utopian idea that the community will decide what their dedicated officers will do, and not the chief of police," former Deputy Chief David Kozicki said.

Kozicki, who worked in Oakland for 29 years, said the department first started resorting to mandatory overtime for short periods during the rollout of Measure Y. But he couldn't recall the periods of mandatory overtime lasting anywhere close to 18 months. "You're burning them out," he said. "That's what you're doing."

Figueroa said that police have pressed their case for more flexibility in the next iteration of Measure Y. But having dedicated community-oriented police officers is popular among voters.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said she might support tweaking the initiative to allow Measure Y-funded officers to occasionally work patrol in the communities where they are assigned. She requested that police produce a plan for reducing mandatory overtime that will be discussed by council members Tuesday.

Ultimately the only way to end the overtime is to hire more officers.

Department leaders wrote that three more police academies, which are already underway, must graduate and complete field training before they can end mandatory overtime. And they warned that it could quickly return if the city doesn't find money for more academies, which cost about $3 million apiece.

Kaplan said she doesn't know if the council can do anything currently about forced overtime, but she'll support funding more academies.

"Our officers need to see that we are planning appropriately," she said. "So they know this will not be an endless roller coaster of staffing going up and down."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435