What does it take to be a cop in Oakland?
After years of struggle, the Oakland Police Department is finally getting some positive news. Crime rates are down in all major categories, including murder, robberies, and burglaries. And they’re getting closer than ever to meeting federally mandated reforms from more than a decade ago.
Add to the list the growing ranks of sworn officers. The department has had a hard time keeping its numbers above 600 for a couple of years. But they’re starting to see a surge, thanks to continual recruitment efforts since 2012. OPD receives thousands of applications. Even so, only about two percent are selected for the police academy and even fewer end up as new officers. The entire process is long and grueling; it takes about a year and a half to go from applicant to trained solo officer.
Officer Brent Lowe successfully completed that process and says it was worth it. He’s been on the streets by himself for about a year now.
“What attracted me to it, we’re always out in the field,” says Lowe. “Every day is different. Serving others is definitely, I feel, very self-rewarding.”
There are now more than 100 new officers in Oakland, with almost 100 more in training. This brings the department to a total of 680 sworn officers, getting closer to its goal of 700 by 2015.
Officer Don Sawyer supervises field training for new cops. He says they’re expected to multitask at all times.
“So they have to not only answer the radio, but they have to do proactive work,” says Sawyer. “Stop cars and all that.”
Sawyer says it takes years for individual offices to establish their own unique styles of policing. But perfecting the basics at this stage is essential.
“Radio is really hard for them,” he says. “Navigation. Driving the car. I don’t usually let my trainees drive until the third week because they have too much going on as it is. And you want them to learn to do it all. Baby steps.”
Some rookies weed themselves out throughout the academy and field training. Others don’t pass exams required by the state. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, around 20 percent don’t make it to graduation. But the majority get to ride solo, like 27-year-old Brenton Lowe.
Hailing from Castro Valley, Lowe is assigned to West Oakland. He’s been on the street since 2013. He says he definitely feels more comfortable doing police work now compared to when he started a year ago. But he knows he’s still on a steep learning curve.
“Even though I have a tidbit of street policing experience,” he says, “that’s a small grain of sand along a huge beach.”
That’s partly because learning how to be a good cop isn’t just about being out on the street.
About 50 police trainees sit in the jury box and gallery dressed in full uniforms in a courtroom at the Alameda County Courthouse in downtown Oakland. They’re trying a fake robbery case they’ve been working on since they began the police academy five months ago. They’re practicing how to respond to detailed questions by the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, and the judge – all played by deputy district attorneys.
Deputy District Attorney Melissa Dooher explains to the trainees how to prep a case before taking the stand. She says once an officer receives a subpoena from her office, he or she needs to touch base with the prosecutor to make sure they’re on the same page.
“After you’ve gone over your report and refreshed your recollection over everything that happened, if it’s possible, please visit the scene,” says Dooher.
Learning the basics of the courtroom comes after months of intensive training. Before they graduate, the trainees have to show proficiency on 42 different topics. Everything from radio codes – like knowing the difference between a 1-8-7 – murder, a 2-1-1 – robbery, and a 4-1-5 – disturbing the peace. Or learning how to handle and shoot a gun, or how to give someone CPR, or tie a tourniquet. That’s after passing an arduous application process that takes six to eight months to complete. It includes written and physical exams, a psychological evaluation and even a polygraph. And once they graduate, they’ll undergo even more training in the field.
All in all, it costs the city around $20,000 to hire and train one person.
The people training to be police officers
Thirty-two-year-old Nicholas Ramos is a trainee from El Sobrante. He comes from a family of police officers. He spent ten years working at Best Buy before joining the force.
Ramos says he only applied to the Oakland Police Department – nowhere else – partly because of encouragement from his uncle, who also worked here.
“When he learned I wanted to do law enforcement, he said you’ve got to come here,” says Ramos. “You’ve got to be a part of the city.”
Another big reason is because Ramos wanted to be part of a younger and more diverse class of officers in Oakland.
“I’m half Mexican and half Japanese,” he says. “I’ve grown up around a whole bunch of different cultures and it’s great to represent that for the city.
Courtney Lewis, a North Oakland native, says she’s all too familiar with problems in the area.
“I’ve had family members taken from me by gun violence,” says Lewis. “For me, it was motivating to become an officer in Oakland and protect the people in the neighborhood I grew up in.”
Lewis majored in criminal justice in college and says she’s always wanted to be a cop. But being in the Oakland police academy is doing more than teaching her how to do a job.
“It may sound cliché, but to me, it’s making me a better person,” says Lewis. “It makes me a stronger person both mentally and physically. And it’s helped me become more confident in myself.”
Her classmate Nicholas Ramos says the rigorous training creates a deep bond.
“In a very short amount of time, you’re put in an extraordinary situation with people you’ve just met,” he says. “At the end of the day to the point I’m at now, I can honestly say everyone in my class I can depend on.”
A few weeks later, OPD Chief Sean Whent conducts firearm and uniform inspections for the 168th graduating class of the Oakland Police Academy.
Trainees Ramos and Lewis, along with 45 of their peers, get their badges, then swear-in as new officers.
They all have their new assignments. Some will start on patrol, others on crime reduction teams. But over the next four months, they’ll rotate duties to get a taste of every aspect of police work.
After the ceremony, new officer Nicholas Ramos introduces his trainer to his dad, who’s a retired cop himself. Ramos has been assigned to West Oakland. He says there’s one quality he knows he’ll bring to that community.
“I learned that as long as you’re respectful in how you talk to anybody, it doesn't matter who it is or where they come from or what their background is,” says Ramos. “If you show them respect, they’ll show you that same respect back.”
New officer Courtney Lewis gets to return to her home turf of North Oakland. She says her lifelong connection to the neighborhood will help her relate to community members. And it’ll be easier on her nerves.
“I mean, you’re going to be nervous regardless, no matter what kind of job, how many skills they teach you,” she says. “You just have to get out there and do it.”
More academies are in the works this year. And the number of new officers continues to grow. For Lewis and her classmates, the real test will be on the streets of Oakland.