OAKLAND — The Oakland Police Department's homicide unit has received a small boost this year, one that police commanders hope can make a big difference in solving the most serious of crimes in a city known for a high murder rate.
Oakland homicide investigators regularly work twice as many cases — if not more — as their counterparts in other cities, and the department, to date, has solved less than one-third of its homicide cases from 2008.
This year, with the department fully staffed for the first time in years, police brass added an additional team of two investigators, bringing the total number of investigators working new homicide cases to 12. An additional two handle cold cases.
"It may only sound like two extra bodies," said police Lt. Brian Medeiros, head of the homicide unit, "but to us in this office, it's huge."
Medeiros took over the homicide unit this year. The two-person homicide teams typically rotate weeks where they are on "standby," meaning any homicides that come in during that week are assigned to the team. The teams used to be on standby every five weeks, but with the additional team in place, it's now every six weeks.
"Say you and your partner catch two homicides during your standby," Medeiros said, "it gives you an extra week to investigate those homicides."
The personnel boost is part of a broader reorganization that has also seen the addition of the two cold-case detectives as well as a targeted enforcement task force, a team of six officers and a sergeant, specifically assigned to homicide.
Those officers work to develop leads on suspects and witnesses. One of the department's biggest challenges is that even when police believe they have a homicide suspect they can have difficulty getting cooperation from witnesses and victims' families.
It's hard to tell at this point what ultimate impact the changes to homicide will have on the unit's success. Of the 124 homicide cases in 2008, 40 have been cleared. As of May 22, the department had cleared 14 of 40 homicides in 2009. A number of the 2009 cases that haven't been cleared will likely be solved in the weeks and months ahead.
Staffing levels in all of the department's criminal investigative units are affected by the fact the department has 33 people, including 14 investigators, in its Internal Affairs Division because under the Riders settlement police must resolve complaints in a timely fashion.
Acting police Chief Howard Jordan said the homicide unit ideally would have 20 investigators, and Oakland detectives are still overworked compared with their counterparts around the Bay Area.
In San Jose, 10 detectives plus two handling cold cases were assigned to homicide detail for a city that saw 32 killings in 2008. In San Francisco, about 25 homicide detectives plus other criminal investigators handled 97 homicides. In Richmond, seven homicide investigators and other criminal investigators handled 27 homicides. And in Berkeley, three homicide detectives handled nine homicide cases.
Jordan said the department had planned to increase its homicide personnel for about a year.
"It's the most serious crime we investigate," Jordan said, saying the department owes it to the public to focus on solving and preventing slayings.
Jordan also said the department would soon like to create a major crimes unit, in which investigators will work together investigating assault and homicide cases, trying to prevent the deadly retaliatory shootings that can result from nonlethal attacks.
The bad news for the Oakland department is that after it finally exceeded its full staffing level of 803 officers in November, budget cuts could force the city to lay off officers. And even if Oakland can avoid police layoffs, the department will fall below its 803-officer staffing level because of attrition. The staffing level as of Monday was 807.
Asked whether the possible loss of officers would affect the homicide unit, Jordan said, "We're looking at every unit that could possibly be affected by staffing reductions."
Kristin Bender and Harry Harris contributed to this story.