June 19, 2024
"The situation is at a crisis point given the volume of calls and the level of crime that’s reported," said the head of the city's police union.

OAKLAND — The Oakland Police Department has one year to speed up its notoriously slow emergency response times, California officials have warned, or the city risks losing important state funding — and even the authority to answer 911 calls at all.

The department’s slow 911 response has been the subject of public scrutiny for the past several years, including in two recent civil grand jury reports and a 2017 city audit.

“The situation is at a crisis point given the volume of calls and the level of crime that’s reported,” Barry Donelan, the head of the city’s police union, said in an interview. “It just seems to be us pedaling like mad on a stationary bicycle.”

Now the critiques have caught the attention of the California Office of Emergency Services, which provides funding to the city’s police and formally recognizes the department as a “public safety answering point” that dispatches 911 calls.

Every agency receiving state funding for 911 response services must respond to over 90% of calls within 15 seconds. Oakland has met that standard for just 46.22% of calls over the past 12 months, state officials said.

Most 911 calls go to the police’s Emergency Communications Center. On average, 10% of those involve a fire or medical emergency, 30% warrant police dispatch, and the rest are miscellaneous or crank calls and non-emergency requests, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury reported earlier this year.

The number of pending calls, or those received by the police but for which officers are not immediately available, is frequently above 200 at a given time — much higher than previously recorded highs in recent years, which scarcely topped 100, according to department data.

The grand jury points to OPD’s hiring difficulties and staffing shortages, much of it associated with the pandemic-era “Great Resignation,” for both the present gaps and the department’s struggles to fix issues identified in a similar 2020 grand jury report.

Oakland’s 911 computer system was down altogether on a pair of successive days in July, first due to a power outage and then an internal glitch.

An Oakland police dispatcher handles a call for service in the department’s operations center, Monday, June 30, 2014 in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) 

The incidents forced the dispatchers to manually take down information from calls on handwritten notes, while the city advised residents to “hang up and call back” if they called 911 and reached a busy signal.

On a recent night, Donelan said he called into the department’s dispatch center and learned there were 285 calls pending, including 21 reports of violated restraining orders where the suspect was actively on the scene, and 24 others of active violent assault.

If OPD’s response times don’t improve, the state may route local 911 calls somewhere else, the office said in a July 26 letter to the Oakland Police Department.

OPD was additionally on the hook to provide the state an improvement plan within 30 days of the letter’s writing — a deadline that would have passed last week. It’s unclear if the department has completed one or how much state funding Oakland receives for 911 response. City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The improvement plan could include “recruitment, vetting, and training of new employees or identification of equipment issues,” wrote Janee Dabrowski, advisory and compliance supervisor for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which oversees 911 communications statewide.

The emergency office’s letter came to public light Thursday after Marleen Sacks, a local attorney, obtained it in a request to the state as part of an ongoing quest to compel better 911 response times from the city.

“There’s virtually no legal way you can sue a city for not providing a police response,” Sacks, who regularly files suit challenging Oakland’s handling of procedures, said in an interview.

The state’s funding standard, she said, “is not a law, but it is a directive — and the way it’s worded, it’s something mandatory that the city needs to comply with.”

It’s one more thing for OPD to worry about as its oversight group searches for a new, full-time chief to replace LeRonne Armstrong, who was fired by the mayor in February following a messy internal scandal.

Police union officials frequently describe a shortage of trained officers on the force, though in this case staffing issues appear to extend to the Emergency Communications Center, where employees regularly work mandatory overtime shifts to fill gaps, the grand jury found.

“The situation appears to be getting more dire,” the jury’s report states, noting that “as key people leave, the remaining team members are unable to implement the work, the patrol officers are resisting, and the 20-year-old system is waiting to fail catastrophically.”

Staff writers Ethan Varian and Jakob Rodgers contributed to this report.