Manuel Rodriguez listens during a class in policing and community relations at Merritt College on Jan. 28, 2015. (Tara Siler/KQED)
The Oakland Police Department is trying to recruit more homegrown talent to build its force. Officials say police-community relations would likely improve if more cops lived in the city.
The department has begun focusing more intensively on this approach in the past year. This comes as Oakland police and other departments around the country are under heightened scrutiny in the wake of the killings of unarmed black men by police officers in Missouri and New York.
Currently, only 7 percent of Oakland's roughly 700 officers live in the city. That's low compared with San Francisco, where one-quarter live in the community, and San Jose, where the percentage is nearly 40 percent.
Oakland's strategy to boost the number of local recruits is to partner with local churches, nonprofits, high schools and colleges.
The department has an enthusiastic partner in Margaret Dixon, who heads the Administration of Justice Program at Merritt College in Oakland. Dixon is a fiery retired police officer who spent 25 years on the Oakland force. She uses her program to try to recruit young Oaklanders to follow in her footsteps.
Dixon says cops living in the community are more in sync with the city. “They understand the needs, and they’re policing people they already know,” she says.
Manuel Rodriguez is one of a handful of students in Dixon's policing and community relations class who wants to be an Oakland officer.
“Even though people say bad things about Oakland, Oakland made me a better person,” Rodriguez says.
But becoming a police officer is not easy. Oakland typically gets about 1,000 applications for each police academy it holds, and just 50 are accepted. Some applicants face educational challenges, credit problems or even rap sheets. Dixon says she tries to get the best candidates over these hurdles.
Ten of the 35 cadets graduating from OPD’s last academy are Oakland residents. Four of them came through Dixon's program.
“The students who are serious about going into police work -- we’re going to get them when they first get here and hold on to them," Dixon says. “We’re going to look at credit, we’re going to look at everything in their life that can possibly disqualify them and try to fix it before they get there.”
In this particular class of 30 students, there are only a handful who say they want to be Oakland cops, and they're all Latino.
Dixon says the Oakland department desperately needs more Latinos on the force, but it has an even greater need for African-American officers because they are the least represented ethnic group among its sworn officers. Dixon says there's a stigma in the city's black community associated with wearing a badge.
Potential African-American officers “are afraid of being accepted, not only by their peers, but by their family,” Dixon says. “They don’t want to be ridiculed. ... You have to break that fear.”
And build trust, too. Dixon admits she herself didn't trust the police when she was growing up in West Oakland. And that same feeling is evident among African-American students in her classroom. Remember, this is a city where the Police Department has been under federal court supervision for the last 12 years because of civil rights abuses. It's that kind of history that influences some students' perspective.
“I kind of lightweight trust cops,” Tiara Allen says. "But I don't trust the system itself."
Other students say police shouldn't be so fast to use deadly force. Dixon counters that police don’t always have the luxury of discretion.
“It’s tough," she tells her students. "You can’t train an officer to second-guess stuff."
Some students point to recent police killings of unarmed people as proof that cops should be using more discretion before using their weapons. Especially when it's not clear whether the person they are after is armed, says student Jovantae Carleton.
"Every officer is using that excuse constantly, and they’re getting away with it," Carleton says.
Among the Latino students who say they would like to join the Oakland force is Salome Rodriguez Marin. She agrees that officers need to reach out to the community more. She’s a member of an Oakland police Explorer program for young people and says she's seen the department's culture starting to change on some of the ride-alongs she's done.
"So I think it’s also our responsibility as a community to become educated, to know exactly what changes OPD is making so that we just don’t go around saying, 'Oh, I don’t trust the police,' " Rodriguez Marin says.
Dixon says that change will come faster to the Oakland police if more Oaklanders step up and apply.
"Don’t tell me you don’t like who came to your door, 'cause that’s all we had," she says. "I’m sorry. You be the change."