OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | Last July, just as President Barack Obama was speaking inside the Fox Theatre, over 100 Oakland police officers on duty to protect him suddenly lost radio communications. The embarrassing 30 minute lapse did not result in any harm to the president or demonstrators outside. Instead, it became the latest challenge facing Oakland’s faulty radio system.
Barry Donelan, the president of the Oakland Police Officers Association called it “America’s worst working radio system.” The rickety emergency communication system used by Oakland’s police officers and firefighters has been a hot-button issue in recent years after city administration chose to plow more money into patching the existing system instead of joining neighboring cities and counties in the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority (known colloquially as E-bricks).
During two committee hearings on the subject Tuesday, Donelan and some Oakland council members say often times its P25 radios are simply inoperable. At present issue is some question whether the city should “throw good money after bad” by authorizing further maintenance, as some critics of the current radio system say, or begin making expenditures toward the costs to join EBRCS.
The city administration is looking to make $3 million in upgrades to the existing system. Last week, the Oakland City Council Finance and Management Committee, with the power of the purse string, and the Public Safety Committee both continued the agenda item, despite city staff’s suggestion the expenditure is not entirely related to the discussion of switching system and about overall maintenance to infrastructure and help other vital communications systems in the city, including public safety call centers, ShotSpotter and the current P25 radios used by police and fire.
“It is beneficial to P25 system but not specific to it,” said David Cruz of the city’s Department of Technology. The improvements do not include any purchase of radio components, Cruz added, but merely a civil design and construction project to erect a back-up generator and antennae.
However, what constitutes a majority of the City Council appeared reluctant to separate the two issues suggesting the city may be closer to embracing EBRCS than ever before led by the council’s law and order advocates. “Officers have no confidence in the radios on their belt and in their cars,” said Schaaf, who added, “If you can’t convince them, you can’t convince me.”
Schaaf also called for city staff to present a side-by-side analysis of both systems in the next two weeks while continuing the item, possibly indefinitely until further information is provided the council. “This is a systemic problem for people to think they can keep spending money at this system and hope it works.”
Oakland’s ambivalence towards joining the regional system has come with great consternation to neighboring cities and for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Just last month, during a public protection committee meeting at the county, Supervisor Scott Haggerty blasted Oakland Council President Pat Kernighan for their reluctance to make the switch. In the event of a major earthquakes or other unforeseen disaster in the Bay Area, critics of Oakland’s going it alone strategy raise fears the city’s police and fire would face significant communication barriers in cases of mutual aid.
In addition, equipping Oakland’s public safety officers with suitable radios is not only under the purview of the City Council, but also an issue for Thomas Frazier, the former Baltimore police commissioner appointed by Federal Judge Thelton Henderson to oversee the police department as compliance officer. In his initial report, Frazier slammed OPD’s communication system and recommended spending $450,000 to assess its technology infrastructure, including $250,000 for its dilapidated radios.
Councilmember Noel Gallo, clearly the council’s most vociferous defender of the police in just his first six months in office, says the underpinning of Frazier’s approach is to push OPD to regional collaborations, including communication systems.
Gallo, however, questioned the administration’s desire to tackle the potential move to EBRCS. Holding up a documentation following a presentation on EBRCS given by the county, Gallo says the city failed to respond. “Those efforts have been made and I’m wondering why the follow up was not made to the supervisors?”
No explanation was given by staff and question central to the proposal to move to EBRCS, such as how much it would cost to join and whether some of the basic maintenance needed to Oakland’s overall communications system would “constitute our buy-in into the system,” as Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan suggested.
“The officers I represent have zero confidence in the system,” added Donelan, in response to a question from Councilmember Libby Schaaf. “This system is a failure.”