The 170th Oakland police academy graduation. Oakland Police Department photo.

OPD’s lost officer class

In 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, the Oakland City Council voted to lay off 80 police officers in a cost-cutting move. The council was frustrated at the time that the Oakland police union had refused to start contributing to police officer pensions.

But after violent crime increased in Oakland and the city’s finances started to improve, the city embarked on a police-hiring spree, first under then-Mayor Jean Quan and followed by Mayor Libby Schaaf. From 2013 to 2015, 260 new Oakland police officers graduated from academies.

But the hiring frenzy stretched OPD’s capacity to vet new officers to the breaking point, and record keeping for the new recruits was woeful, according to city records and interviews. Many of the new officers were later involved in a string of misconduct incidents that Oakland will be grappling with for years to come.

Of the officers hired from 2013 to 2015, 23—enough to fill their own academy class—have been charged with crimes, the subject of high-profile internal affairs investigations, named as defendants in civil rights lawsuits, or involved in controversial shootings. While California law prohibits the release of personnel records, a department audit completed late last year found that 30 officers hired since 2012 had been involved in some kind of serious misconduct. Of those, 22 have either been fired or resigned.

Rookies were mainly responsible for a wave of shootings by Oakland police officers in 2015: seven of the 13 officers who used firearms that year had a year or less of experience. And so far, the city has paid nearly $2.2 million to settle lawsuits related to rookie conduct during those years and will likely pay more in still-pending lawsuits.

Meanwhile, some problem officers remain on the force, including Officer Giovanni LoVerde, who was charged with oral copulation with a minor in September 2016 but still remained on OPD’s roster a year later. Mandatory arbitration makes it extraordinarily difficult to fire cops for misconduct.

LoVerde was one of several rookie officers implicated in an expansive sex abuse scandal involving a teenager who used to go by the name Celeste Guap. The Guap case also extended the long-running federal oversight of the department. (Alameda County prosecutors dropped the charges against LoVerde on Oct. 5, indicating that Guap was reluctant to testify against him.)

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversaw OPD reforms for 14 years, said in an interview with this reporter before Henderson retired in August that he was “shocked” to learn that most of the officers involved in the sex abuse scandal were rookies. Henderson’s theory of institutional reform is that new hires will only know the reformed training and practices, leading to steady culture change.

“They’ve recruited some officers that were rejected by other forces—that’s the problem there,” Henderson said of OPD. “They’re desperately trying to build up the force. They’re looking far beyond Oakland to find their police. And I think that’s the problem rather than the training.”

After the 2010 layoffs, the department’s staffing shrank even further in the next two years as the city’s budget problems remained. By March 2013, as the city’s financial woes began to ease, the number of police officers had fallen to 611. Then-Mayor Jean Quan was under huge pressure to ramp up, but also to do it cheaply.

Still facing projections of deficits despite the growing economy, Quan called for hiring hundreds of new officers in her state of the city address on Feb. 27, 2013, which she delivered weeks before OPD’s first academy graduation in four years.

“We’re probably not going to be able to fill [the budget deficit] just by growing the economy,” Quan said at the time. “To solidly increase the police force by 200 officers … we have to think about how we’re doing it and what we’re willing to give up.”

That first class included Kevin Kelly, who was cited by San Francisco police for pulling a gun while drinking at an IHOP in San Francisco at 2:40 a.m. in an attempt to impress a waitress. It also included Anthony Martinelli, who pulled a gun on an off-duty Oakland firefighter and his young son while the firefighter was checking the door at one of the stations. And it included Brendan O’Brien, who killed himself in September 2015 and left a note that kicked off the investigation into the Guap sex abuse scandal.

In the fallout from that scandal, Oakland police Lt. Chris Bolton, who leads the department’s Office of Inspector General, conducted an audit of OPD’s recruitment practices and made a series of recommendations for improvements that the department is implementing. While the audit didn’t point to any particular flaw in recruitment, it acknowledged that OPD’s capacity for vetting and training new officers was stretched thin.

“The reality of the department’s staffing predicament in 2012 was arguably dire,” the audit stated. “Given the high influx of newly hired officers between 2012 and present day, the department’s hiring and training resources reached their capacity.”

The audit, which was co-written by Oakland Police Performance Auditor Rose Sutton, examined 78 officers who were involved in serious misconduct, 30 of whom had been hired after 2012. A major area for improvement that the audit identified was the lack of a comprehensive system for tracking new hires. In some cases, OPD hired cops even though their background check indicated significant alcohol and anger management issues—problems that cropped up again once they became members of the force.

The audit also found that OPD commanders were not effectively examining peer reviews by fellow trainees. Of the officers in the sample, 15 received poor marks from peers. One trainee had 39 reports indicating the person wasn’t trustworthy, another had 25 reports for lewdness, and another had 22 reports for poor judgement. All but one eventually became Oakland cops, but 11 were no longer employed by the time of the audit.

“Peer evaluations was a huge gold nugget to this review,” Bolton said in an interview. He added that peer evaluations weren’t used proactively despite being indicative of character issues and “were sometimes matching up with problems that later erupted at the academy and after the academy.”

The department is implementing a new comprehensive risk-management system to track officers’ training history along with assignments, stops, arrests, use of force, and body-worn camera footage. But in a February report, court-appointed monitor Robert Warshaw noted that while extensive technical resources had been devoted to the new system, less attention had been paid to how to use the new system for risk management.

In a status conference in October, Judge William Orrick, who took over the department’s reform case from Henderson, expressed frustration with the continued delays of the new system, which is known as PRIME. Attorneys for the city indicated that the system would be up and running by February 2018.

But the costs of OPD’s recruitment shortcomings are far from over. Attorneys for the family of Richard Perkins, who was shot by four officers when he approached them with a replica gun in November 2015, have been seeking records related to the hiring and training of the officers involved, including three rookies: Jonathan Cairo, Joshua Barnard, and Allahno Hughes. The city has resisted turning over the documents.

The fourth officer in the Perkins case, Joseph Turner, is also named in another pending lawsuit involving rookie officers. That case involved Officer Cullen Faeth allegedly attacking a county probation officer outside her home on Dec. 7, 2015. Turner was a sergeant at the time but is now listed as an officer on OPD’s roster. Another officer placed on leave in connection with the incident, Bryan Budgin, remains on OPD’s roster as well and was arrested for DUI in September.

Oakland officials say the city is committed to improving its recruitment and training. Bolton said that after completing his audit, he shared the results with officials across the city.

“The one thing that every stakeholder shared was the desire to hire the best of the best,” he said. “No one wanted the standards to be compromised for the sake of meeting any goal.”