OAKLAND -- Among the most fundamental relationships in Oakland's struggle with crime is that between its police officers and its residents. That relationship could see major changes in the coming months as a years-old proposal to shift control of police oversight into the hands of civilians is gaining traction.

Currently, the city primarily relies on the Oakland Police Department to investigate complaints against its own officers. Some community activist groups and council members are pushing to tip that balance in the direction of civilians with no connection to the department to do that work instead.

It's a hefty job. The police department's Internal Affairs Division, or IAD, has a staff of about 35 people. It received 1,570 civilian complaints of officer misconduct in 2010, according to its own reporting, an average of about two complaints per officer. Of the complaints, 415 concerned use of force.

Oakland's existing Citizens' Police Review Board has been around for more than three decades. It is staffed with four investigators, but has never been the primary resource for residents to bring police complaints and has never had the resources to tackle more than a handful of cases. Last year, it handled 80.

In San Francisco, by comparison, the Office of Civilian Complaints -- an all-civilian team the same size and a little more than half the cost of Oakland's sworn staff in IAD -- took in about 850 complaints for about 2,300 officers, or about a single complaint for every three officers.

Adding to the task in Oakland is the city's settlement with the federal government over the Riders scandal. In that 2003 settlement, OPD committed to dozens of reforms. Federal monitors said in April that after eight years, an unacceptable number of those reforms remain uncompleted, and most are at least partly the responsibility of IAD. The judge in that case has gone so far as to threaten putting Oakland police under a receivership, which would place the department in federal control.

Plans at City Hall

Mayor Jean Quan said avoiding that takeover and finalizing the police reforms are her next priority, right after solving the city's catastrophic budget deficit. She's met with the judge and the monitors several times and said she's set to make some changes to IAD. In the next several months, she's planning to move eight to 10 sworn officers currently in IAD back into street work. To compensate for the department's loss in manpower, lower-level supervisors would process less severe complaints, rather than make investigators handle every one.

Beyond that, Quan said, she hasn't finalized how to change the existing system, though her staff is exploring ideas about how to civilianize at least parts of IAD.

One popular idea for the first step would be changing the staff that handles complaint intake.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (at-large), who said she solidly supports the idea as long as it can be done while abiding by the Riders settlement, argues that a civilian who feels mistreated by a police officer is more likely to feel comfortable making a complaint if he or she can do that with a fellow civilian, rather than one of that officer's co-workers.

However, Quan and her team will need to meet and confer with union leaders over any major changes.

Police brass seem willing to go along with the idea. Capt. Paul Figueroa, who commands IAD, said he is working with Quan's office and the city administrator to "determine the best way to move forward with civilianization of IAD."

Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the police union, declined to comment on the issue of civilianizing any police jobs, saying no city official has yet approached him on the topic.

That makes sense, as Quan said she's prioritizing other negotiating points at the moment. Her negotiations have been focused on police contributions that she says are crucial to resolving the city's dire budget deficit. She's been calling on officers to pay 9 percent into their pensions since she took office in January.

Nonetheless, Quan said she's planning to work hard on police reforms, including civilianization, in the second half of this year, after the budget has been settled.

She said she's looking nationwide to see how other models have fared when civilianizing various police positions.

A nearby example

One such example is just across the bay. San Francisco's Office of Civilian Complaints, or OCC, is led by Joyce Hicks, who for four years ran the Citizens' Police Review Board, or CPRB, in Oakland. With a few exceptions, OCC handles all civilian complaints about San Francisco's police officers; proponents say the office has found its feet in recent years, striking a good balance of fairness while still having "teeth" -- the power to affect enforcement and discipline.

Other models across the country show the potential for civilianizing the job of investigating police officers, Hicks said, including prominent examples such as Chicago and New York City.

With a staff of 35, including 19 investigators (almost five times as many civilian investigators as Oakland employs), Hicks said her office is able to handle civilian complaints -- from minor issues up to problems so serious they result in an officer's termination -- as well as perform policy research in coordination with the police department, auditing functions and mediations.

The internal affairs investigators in the San Francisco Police Department still handle officer-involved shootings, complaints from any city officials and any case where an officer may have committed a crime, Hicks said.

Asked what advice she would give to Oakland in considering civilianization, Hicks said, "The most important resource that one needs is an adequate number of well-trained investigators to conduct a thorough intake. It's something that I think all jurisdictions struggle with, in these slim budget times. But it's much more affordable to have civilian investigators than to have sworn investigators."

It also helps the credibility of investigations into the police, she said.

Hicks worked at the Oakland city attorney's office for more than two decades before running CPRB. She was living in the city when the Riders case settled, though she was uninvolved with the case.

"What surprised me about that settlement," she said, "is that it did not provide for a civilian component of oversight." In most similar cases, Hicks said, that would have been built in, but CPRB wasn't included.

Local community push

Rashidah Grinage, director of People United for a Better Life in Oakland, is pushing for big changes now. Since civilian investigators cost about half what sworn investigators do, she argues, it could be a money-saver to find some money in the upcoming budget to bulk up the CPRB.

At the least, according to Grinage and about a dozen speakers at a recent City Council meeting, Oakland's review board should be staffed to handle the intake of all complaints from residents.

The CPRB currently investigates when residents bring a complaint to them separate from filing it with IAD. The board is able to subpoena officers and hold hearings, parallel to any work done within the police department. As far as its "teeth," CPRB passes its findings to the city administrator, who may weigh those findings against any he gets from the police department, then administer any discipline.

Making a change that required residents to take their complaints straight to the CPRB would boost its limited public profile, Grinage said, and a copy of every complaint still would be sent to the police, leaving the door open for internal investigations.

Community members who spoke at a recent City Council meting say they want to see more resources going to civilian oversight overseen by investigators who have a professional understanding of the laws police must follow, but who don't work in any police department and therefore have no horse in the race.

The bottom line

The civilianization idea has been popular with the City Council since at least 2009, when it approved the change with the stipulation that the money to hire new CPRB investigators had to come from somewhere else -- hiring 10 new civilians as the city was continuing to lay off scores of workers was a tough sell. The projected cost to do so is $1.2 million, and the money hasn't turned up yet.

Quan said last week that she's reaching out to grant foundations to secure the cash and hopes to hear back starting in July.

Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.