By Jesse Douglas
The Oakland Police Department is struggling to come up with solutions to make a dent in the department’s blacklogged investigations and DNA processing crisis, in the wake of a offical Grand Jury report issued late in June, which criticized what it called a “significant backlog” in both crime lab and the investigations units that may have kept large numbers of accused criminals from being arrested.
The Grand Jury report said that because of “insufficient staffing” in the 23-member OPD crime lab, the backlog in processing firearms ballistics requests has risen to close to 2,000, causing the lab to “cancel non-homicide requests that are more than three years old, thereby missing opportunities to potentially aid investigations.”
In addition, the report noted the lab had a backlog of 515 requests for DNA processing, and that even when DNA samples from an Oakland crime have been matched to a suspect using the national DNA database, only about one-third of those matches have been followed-up on.
And noting that even though OPD has “drastically decreased” the collection of fingerprint evidence, the Grand Jury report said that because of staffing shortages, the OPD crime lab was only able to complete 34 of 143 requests to identify crime scene fingerprints last year.
But Oakland’s police budget does not reflect a concern about reports of the department’s investigative backlog. While the department’s bureau of field operations, which includes beat officers, was increased from 392 full-time employees to 406 full-time employees between last year’s budget and this, the bureau of investigations, which includes the crime lab, dropped from 173 full-time employees to 157 in the same period.
Neither the Oakland mayor’s office nor the Oakland Chief of Police’s office have yet responded to the Grand Jury’s critical findings, saying they are still preparing a written response.
OPD Chief Howard Jordan’s chief of staff, Sergeant Chris Bolton, said in an interview that while the chief’s office is “in the process of reviewing” the Grand Jury recommendations on the investigations and crime lab problems, “this isn’t something we’ve been sleeping on. We’ve been taking affirmative steps” to correct the situation.
Last year, for example, Bolton said that in order to maximize their ability to conduct investigations, OPD “created teams of investigators to work on crime scenes, rather than having just one or two process the scene.”
But in the end, Bolton said, it is still a matter of resources. “We need more,” he said. “We don’t have enough.”
Rashidah Grinage, Executive Director of Oakland’s PUEBLO organization, which has monitored and advocated on Oakland police issues for many years, called the increase in patrol staffing while cutting back on investigations “a response to political demands,” and said in a telephone interview that the department’s investigative and crime lab staffing problem cannot be blamed upon solely on lack of money.
Pointing to former OPD Chief Anthony Batts’ 5 Year Plan that called for replacing police officers with civilians in 45 OPD positions, Grinage said that hiring civilians for many positions, including the crime lab and some investigations, would free up current officers to leave desk jobs and go out in the street, easing both the problems of a shortage of patrol officers and a shortage of lab workers and investigators.
Grinage said the money to hire the civilian workers could be found by canceling the upcoming police academies, which she said are too expensive for the numbers of actual Oakland officers they create.
Contacted by the Post, Councilmember Jane Brunner said she had not yet read the Grand Jury report in detail and therefore could not comment on the report’s conclusions about the OPD DNA backlog. Councilmembers Larry Reid and Ignacio De La Fuente did not return calls from the Post.