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Oakland leaders take heat over civil grand jury report criticizing emergency staffing crisis

City leaders in Oakland, California, responded to a civil grand jury report finding the area's emergency call center is understaffed and overworked amid skyrocketing demands.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — City leaders in Oakland, California, say they may soon dedicate millions to support an overwhelmed 911 call center, amid a growing political crisis over public safety.

The city council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve recommendations for action from the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, following a report released June 23. The report says the city must step up its efforts to improve its troubled 911 emergency responder system.

The report examining a period between 2019 and 2020 found that staffing shortages affected the city's emergency call center’s ability to swiftly answer the number of calls coming in, leaving many people who call the emergency number waiting much longer than they should to reach a dispatcher.

The report paints a picture of a stressed city in need of a plan for retaining much-needed dispatchers and operators, finding that although some hiring issues were addressed, the center was also strained by the pandemic.

Without proper staffing and a plan to improve response times, Oakland's call center cannot adequately handle the volume of calls for aid. About 30% of calls require a police dispatch, and 10% require a fire or medical emergency response. The rest are non-emergency, ranging from calls for mobile assistance responders for mental health aid to accidental and crank calls. 

The report said the city’s hiring process to fill the call center is too slow — leaving consistently high numbers of positions, about 26, vacant across manager, operator and dispatcher roles. The report noted that the Oakland Police Department has average staffing levels for a large California city, with nearly 700 sworn police officers in 2022, and did not recommend a higher officer to resident ratio.

The discussion Tuesday was timely, with petty and violent crime having suddenly increased over the summer, in tandem with politically motivated criticisms of the city council’s role in handling public safety. The city council voted in September to study ways to devote millions to better staff the center and reduce 911 hold times, and launched foot patrols in communities across the city with aid from California Highway Patrol. 

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said that 911 staffers are overwhelmed by working extremely long hours and often handle calls that are inappropriate for emergency call centers. She said they also need “technology that works.”

Councilmember Treva Reid, whose district in East Oakland sees some of the most high priority 911 calls, asked if members of the grand jury visited the center more than once in March. Eugenia Oliver, police communications manager, said that the grand jury has not yet scheduled a follow up visit. 

Councilmember Carroll Fife said that when she visited the center, she saw workers taking many non-emergency calls. When she asked for ways to redirect those calls, Oliver said a prior attempt at diverting calls failed and a new system is underway.

Some Oaklanders criticized the councilmembers’ policy decisions and demanded to know why police take so long to respond to 911 calls.

Gene Hazard asked if the city had budgeted for integrating new technology, saying city officials should be held accountable if they did not provide accurate information about the current systems.

Maurice Stevenson said he had worked for the city’s human resources department recently and witnessed how little training internal staff had. 

“During this process, if anyone were to push back or have questions, they were terminated,” Stevenson said. 

Restaurant owner Annabelle Goodridge said she works morning shifts downtown and claimed that when she calls 911 about incidents it can take up to 30 minutes for responders to arrive. 

In response, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said: “We are listening, and I live here too. Violence prevention reduces violence, retaliation and recidivism.”

Fife and Councilmember Dan Kalb said some speakers used “misinformation” about the severity of crime in their statements. Kalb said that sometimes emotions are high due to fear, and people convey those emotions with “an exaggeration of facts.”

“I believe the feelings behind those statements are genuine,” Kalb said. “I think the fear and frustration of the crime that is really happening is real.”

Several councilmembers signaled that they agree with those demanding more policing in response to crime. Councilmember Treva Reid suggested developing weekly strategies with law enforcement agencies to respond to crime hotspots.

“We have all had enough,” Reid said. “I cannot stand to allow this to continue on my watch.”

Having approved and committed to the jury report’s recommendations, the leaders will vote at a future meeting on whether to authorize investing $2.5 million from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority into improving emergency response systems. 

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Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

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