OAKLAND -- In another sign of just how difficult it will be to rebuild Oakland's understaffed police force, the department started a new academy Monday with fewer than half as many recruits as it was seeking.

Only four cadets enrolled in the city's first lateral police academy in more than five years. Police leaders said earlier this year they wanted eight to 15 recruits for the academy, which is geared toward officers who either have already passed a standard police academy or are already working at other departments.

"We didn't get as many good candidates as we had hoped," Mayor Jean Quan said.

Police spokesman Johnna Watson said the department has no plans to hold another lateral academy. However, that could change if the City Council passes a proposal Tuesday geared toward requiring police to identify methods to produce the number of officers authorized by the city's budget.

The budget calls for Oakland to have 665 officers, but staffing as of Oct. 31 was at 638 -- down about 200 from the department's peak five years ago. Officers must work mandatory overtime to cover beats, and major crime is up about 25 percent since 80 officers were laid off in 2010.

The City Council has authorized four police academies over two years to solidify staffing at about 700 by the middle of 2015, but the early returns have not been promising.

The disappointing recruiting drive for the lateral academy comes on the heels of two rookie academies that didn't produce as many officers as projected. Meanwhile, veteran officers are leaving the department this year in greater numbers than anticipated, including 11 who have joined other police agencies as of October.

In San Francisco, which has lured several Oakland officers and offers higher salaries, a lateral recruiting class that graduated in June put 19 officers on the streets.

"It just shows that working in Oakland is very challenging. And attracting laterals is very difficult when there are other opportunities," said Sgt. Barry Donelan, who heads Oakland's police union.

Pressure to hire more established officers from other departments has also come from the department's court-appointed overseer, Thomas Frazier, who warned that Oakland risked having too young a force if more veterans weren't hired.

Two of Oakland's four lateral recruits -- Warit Uttapa and Timothy Watermulder -- are recent graduates of a San Jose Police Department academy. The others are Cullen Faeth, who graduated from an academy in Napa, and Miguel Ugarte, who graduated from the South Bay Regional Academy.

Graduation of the 159th Oakland Police Basic Academy, February 2007.
Graduation of the 159th Oakland Police Basic Academy, February 2007. (Oakland Tribune)

They will attend an eight-week course before joining Oakland's force. Funds for the academy came from a federal grant the city received earlier this year to pay for 10 new officers. Remaining funds from the grant will be used to hire additional officers, city officials said.

Nearly 70 recruits applied for the academy, Watson said. Many of the applicants, she said, had let their certification expire. Others didn't meet the department's requirements.

Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said she believed the small recruiting class reflected concerns among local police officers about the future of the department, which is under unprecedented federal oversight and is searching for its fifth chief in just over two years.

"I think it's really difficult to get people to apply when there isn't a named leader," she said.

Councilman Dan Kalb said he supported a proposal before the council on Tuesday from Councilwoman Libby Schaaf requiring that the Police Department have a plan to replace departing officers. A key part of that plan, he said, should be more lateral academies.

"It's not easy to recruit," Kalb said. "There is a lot of competition, but we have to keep trying."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.