OAKLAND -- Supporters of Police Chief Anthony Batts fired back at critics this week, saying his recently revealed candidacy for the chief's job in San Jose reflects less that Batts is ready to abandon his work here than it does the city's failure to help him succeed.
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Bruce Nye, of the citizens group Make Oakland Better Now, said Batts' hiring 15 months ago was "the best thing to happen to the city in a long, long time," and he called on the council to "adopt as its number one priority the search for solutions to the city's severe staffing problems for police."
Batts hasn't breathed a word in public or to the press about why he would consider the San Jose job for which he was recruited as a candidate in October, just a year into his three-year contract with Oakland. The chief has argued that it is "presumptuous" to discuss the issue before a decision is made, and San Jose officials aren't expected to decide between Batts and the interim San Jose chief until next month.
But while Oakland's elected city leaders have expressed shock and dismay at the news, police insiders haven't shown the same surprise.
"Let's look at the guy's motivation for leaving," said Sgt. Barry Donelan, vice president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, in a Wednesday interview. "He comes here, develops a strategic plan like he was asked to and the plan is not resourced. That's what happened here."
The July layoffs of 80 officers -- one of numerous severe cuts the city made to close a $31 million deficit -- was a big blow, but the department is also fighting a crippling attrition rate, Donelan said. The average rate is about four officers per month lost to retirement or other jobs, but if Batts leaves in January, "he's going to be one of a dozen cops that leave Oakland this month."
"You expect retirements, and some new members from the lower end to head off to greener pastures," Donelan said, "but mid-career officers, people with rank, are leaving in surprising numbers. You never see that."
The force has dwindled from 803 officers when Batts took office in October 2009 to the 656 today, but that's just the most well-known problem, according to a department source who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from City Hall.
According to the source, "Support service is abysmal in the department. There are too few cars for even what remaining patrol officers we have, and the computer systems in those cars are inadequate -- only about 30 percent of computers in patrol cars are functional.
Batts is trying to improve service, but we don't have some of the basic infrastructure the city is responsible for providing."
Further, the department source said, "Chief Batts has done everything he was asked to when he came here.
"He's worked to develop relationships and partnerships throughout the community. We've had sharp reductions of crime in pretty much every category. He addressed sideshows, and for the first time in 20 years, there were no sideshows in Oakland this summer.
Major crowd control events, especially around the (former BART police Officer Johannes) Mehserle verdict, were handled with limited injuries and property damage, and more importantly, few citizen complaints."
In addition to all the external changes, the chief imposed new policies on search and seizure, handcuffing, informants, discipline, search warrants, vehicle pursuits and how officers collect data on people they stop, the source said.
Downtown resident and semiretired substitute teacher Barbara Tengeri also spoke to the City Council on Tuesday, imploring officials to give more resources to public safety while also calling on the police union to consider paying the 9 percent pension contribution Mayor Jean Quan is pushing for.
"We want all 80 officers returned," Tengeri said. "And I want the police to know, we understand you risk your life every day. I too risk my life when I open my door."
Tengeri's home was near ground zero when two massive rallies connected to the murder trial of Mehserle turned violent last year. She said the police response, particularly from Batts, was exactly right, balancing patience with force.
"He knew the people are angry, they are excited, they're upset," she said. "People need to let some steam off, not to break the law. He has people skills, but I know he's tough, too."
Council President Larry Reid said this week he agrees Batts is of great value to the city and that his supposed frustrations are valid, but he also said he was angry the chief hasn't been more communicative and said he hopes to remind Batts of the lives he said he hoped to save when he first moved here.
In the meantime, Batts isn't hurting for popularity with Oakland residents. At a Martin Luther King Jr. rally Monday where Batts was the keynote speaker, Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, said to a crowd of 150, "Our chief has made a difference while he's been here. So regardless his plans in the future, we give him a round of applause."
Batts got a standing ovation.
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.