OAKLAND -- A day after Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts announced that he was not chosen as San Jose's new chief, some in the city hoped for the best but questioned whether his heart and head will let him be content in Oakland.
Councilmember Jane Brunner (North Oakland) spent many hours negotiating with the police union last year in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent officer layoffs. Batts has hinted that he chose to leave because of the serious decline in sworn staff since he was hired, but Brunner is not so sure.
"I don't even know if that is the reason. We don't know if there are other issues, it's not clear," Brunner said. "He is very popular, we think he is a good chief, but in my opinion, he needs to want to be here. And if there are things that are preventing him from wanting to stay, he needs to be in the room to have that discussion.
"If he's going to stay, he needs to work with us as a team," Brunner said, adding that such a discussion is more important than ever given that Oakland must close a $42 million deficit by June 30. And that could grow.
For the time being, Batts and Mayor Jean Quan put on a unified front Friday during a luncheon meeting with merchants in the Fruitvale district to talk about how the police and merchant community can work more closely together to make the area safer.
When it comes to perfect unions, Oakland and its police chiefs have an up and down record. Long gone are the days when head cops such as George Hart survived in the top job for 21 years. More recently political shuffles have resulted in more frequent changes among OPD brass. Still, the fact that Batts -- a charismatic and publicly popular chief -- would choose to jump ship after a year on the job has some folks wondering if there isn't more to the story than a dwindling force.
And some in the San Jose community are not giving up on bringing Batts to the city. San Jose police Chief Chris Moore was chosen over Batts for the South Bay job Thursday. In not hiring Batts, San Jose community activist Raj Jayadev lamented that the city had missed out on "this historic opportunity to dramatically change the relationship between the police and the community that has been defined by mistrust for several years."
Jeffrey Cash, a 14-year Oakland resident who bought a house in East Oakland three years ago, said he was impressed with Batts when they met at a Comstat meeting and felt he was committed to doing his best for Oakland. The news that he might be leaving was a shock.
"When I found out that he was looking to potentially leave the city I was disappointed," Cash said. "No one is going to deny that being police chief for OPD is difficult, and that part of what makes it difficult is the lack of support from within the city and from within the department "... But we would really like to know what is going on inside his head. Trust is so integral in building relationships and Batts has violated that trust. He made a three-year commitment to us and a year in he said he didn't want to honor that commitment.
"Until he explains himself, I think (Quan) should be asking those questions, or she should be looking to replace him," Cash said.
Former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums hired Batts from Long Beach, where he had spent nearly his entire career. The City Council gave him a three-year contract, something no other chief had received. He impressed city leaders and community members alike with his professionalism and seeming dedication to the reforms started after the Riders scandals, and his sensitivity to the department's loss of four veteran officers just six months earlier.
He quickly embarked on a five-year plan to guide the force, a plan that counted on a complement of more than 900 officers, but his plans were thwarted almost from the start.
The city's budget problems overshadowed the reforms. Vacant positions were frozen and eliminated, and 80 police officers were laid off last July. The reduced staffing meant the city could no longer legally collect tax money that paid for 63 community policing officers, and those officers were sent back to cover patrol positions. The department's sworn staff had dwindled from a high of 837 officers in 2008 to 656 this month.
Still, the city's violent crime rate dropped 14 percent and the number of homicides last year dropped below 100 for the first time since 2005. Despite the cuts Batts publicly vowed to do the best job he could with the resources he was given. He clearly didn't like the situation, but he never argued about it in public. Now he is expressing his dissatisfaction, to a point, and hinting that he might not stay around if the city doesn't do more to support him.
"You cannot say public safety is the number one job in the city and your actions don't show it," he said Thursday. "I challenge the city (officials and community) to do everything it takes to save young lives. In this city, I'm not so sure that has been heralded or addressed."
Batts complained that the department is underfunded to the point where officers do not have the basic tools to do their jobs. He also said that elected officials fail to show their gratitude and appreciation of the work officers do by showing up at awards ceremonies or other events.
"I worked my butt off, I surpassed my part of the bargain," Batts said. "Unless I have support from all sides, there's no reason for me to be here."
Brunner said she wishes the chief had gotten more fired up before. She said his advocacy and popularity could have helped sell the voters on a parcel tax to pay for police officers, or perhaps helped the council and the police union come to terms over pension contributions. But he didn't want to get involved, she said.
Dominic Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Union, struck a conciliatory tone Friday, and said he thinks the chief and the rank-and-file can get back on track, if Batts decides he is going to stay.
"I totally think he's a professional, and we can move on," Arotzarena said. "Guys try to leave all the time. I tried it once, too."
Bay Area News Group staff writers Sean Webby and Harry Harris contributed to this report.