Grappling with an expected bump in the summer crime rate and a force of officers quickly falling to what could be an all-time low number, Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts detailed this week a plan to dramatically overhaul the structure of the department he commands.

The first steps of the plan go into effect Saturday: Bike and motorcycle cops will be taken off those duties and folded into regular patrol; the department will now split the city into two geographic regions, rather than three; and 15 sergeants will move into patrol, tightening the command structure there with more supervisors.

What changes will residents notice?

"I'm moving many department chiefs down closer to the street, and the highest-ranking officers in the Oakland Police Department will be engaging the community more," Batts said. "I go out regularly and meet with the community, and now they will go out, too. You will see them, you will touch them."

The chief emphasized several times that the OPD must come into full compliance with the city's negotiated settlement agreement -- a long list of reforms the city agreed to in settling the Riders federal corruption case almost nine years ago. The judge in that case has repeatedly castigated the OPD for making slow progress on those reforms, even threatening to put the department under state or federal control. Mayor Jean Quan has said coming into full compliance is her top priority for the second half of this year.

After Saturday's changes, Batts said he plans to boost staffing in the homicide investigations unit by combining those detectives with others who work on robberies, assaults and fugitive crimes. The new team, dubbed the Major Crimes Unit, would bring more resources to a badly overworked staff, Batts said. While the statewide average for a homicide detective is three cases per year, Oakland investigators are saddled with between 10 and 16, he said. That part of the reorganization is not scheduled until early August.

Also, injured patrol officers, often forced to man a desk for "light duty" while they recover, will begin pitching in with detective work for some of the 16,000 annual property crimes currently handled by three investigators. At any given time, usually 30 to 40 officers are on light duty, and Batts said he hopes the new system will increase the OPD's capacity for responding to crimes while also training officers in more sophisticated duties.

The goal: higher clearance rates for violent crimes and a lowered rate in property crimes.

Concerns arise

Oakland had as many as 837 officers in November 2008, and as few as 610 in 1979, the lowest number in modern Oakland history.

When Batts came to the department almost two years ago with a force of 803, he said fighting the city's severe crime problem effectively would require more than 900 officers. Instead, the force is down to about 636, with an unusually high attrition rate shrinking the department by an average of six officers every month.

The department is also facing challenges from city policy, Batts said. The police helicopter has been grounded, city hall leadership "has stepped away from doing gang injunctions," and "the city doesn't seem like it has the stomach for curfews," he said.

Under current budget projections from City Hall, officers' numbers could fall below even the 610 mark as soon as August 2012, and into the 500s just a few months later.

Just 290 officers are currently assigned to patrol, and of those, only 247 are active, with the others on light duty or assigned to special operations, Assistant Chief Howard Jordan said.

The plan is experimental -- unlike and larger than anything Batts has tried in his nearly 30-year career -- and "should not be seen as a panacea," he said. "This isn't going to change everything."

He presented the plan to the City Council on Tuesday night and met with cautious approval.

"I look forward to supporting the plan," said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf (Laurel-Montclair), though she asked that Batts keep track of the resources currently devoted to the central part of the city, concerned that they could be split unevenly in a tug-of-war.

The dividing line between the city's two new regions will be 23rd Avenue from the bay to Interstate 580, and will then run east along the highway until Keller Avenue. Batts said this will unite the Oakland hills as a single policing community.

Gun problem

Also a major concern within the council is how the city is tackling the gun problem. The city's Shot-Spotter technology is not currently operating as it should, said Councilwoman Desley Brooks (Eastmont-Seminary), and it's unclear whether federal assistance in getting guns off Oakland streets is going to be reliable in the coming year. Batts said he and Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) are working on a plan for guns but declined to get into the details.

Dom Arotzarena, a former homicide detective and president of the police union, said he has some problems with the reorganization.

"This completely restructures how we investigate homicides and felony assaults," Arotzarena said. "The homicide division has never been broken aside from the fact that it's understaffed."

Bringing on robbery and assault investigators isn't a solution, he continued, because "homicides are not like robberies. The interviews are different. Investigations are more meticulous and require a lot more investigation experience, period."

With specialized units, each focused on homicide, robbery and assault being merged into generalized teams, Arotzarena added, he worries robbery cases "will fall to the wayside" as investigators tackle other cases.

As for having injured officers pitch in with detective work for property crimes, "they can do some minor stuff, but they're only going to be there a few weeks at a time. It sounds good, but bottom line, you don't have someone consistently doing the same job."

Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430 or smaher@bayareanewsgroup.com.