By Brian Thiem
I’m working on a new book, where a man who left his law enforcement career twenty-seven years ago, returns to his old department when his granddaughter goes missing. In some ways, it’s a coming-home story, where a character returns to his childhood home after being away for decades, only to find everything has changed—yet some things remain the same.
As part of my research, I spoke to several active and recently retired Oakland police officers and non-sworn employees (they’re now called “professional staff”) to bring me up to date. I retired 16 years ago, and much has changed.
Twenty-seven years ago, the Missing Person’s Unit was staffed by a few officers in YSD (Youth Services Division). They basically processed missing person’s reports, entered details into the local and national databases, and contacted hospitals and coroner’s offices to see if the missing person turned up.
I remember responding to missing persons calls as a patrol officer back in the early 80s. Most of the time, the missing person was a teenager who probably “ran away” or an adult who just decided to “leave,” which adults had the right to do, and we’d just write a report, call in a communications order (Be on the Lookout), and go on to the next call. Obviously, if an eight-year-old boy were missing, we’d pull out all stops and search for however long it took, but those situations were rare.
Things are different today. First of all, there’s no longer a Youth Services Division. Like many departments, Oakland PD is in a state of constant reorganization. The SVS (Special Victims Section) investigates missing persons, domestic violence, sexual assaults, and other crimes.
Today, if my fictional teenage girl were not found by patrol officers, they’d call out SVS investigators who would take over. They’d set up a command post at the parent’s house and another one back in the SVS office. They’d ping her phone, search her social media, investigate sexual predators in the neighborhood and anyone else who might’ve taken her. And they’d stay on the case until she was found.
The appearance of the department has also changed, with many more civilians (oops, I mean professional staff) performing duties sworn officers had done previously. Back then, non-sworn employees worked mostly as city jailers, dispatchers (many departments still had officers working dispatch at that time), and clerk/typists (now called police records specialists).
When I started out, our crime scene technicians were all sworn officers. They did everything from dusting a broken window for prints at a burglary to fully processing homicide scenes, and since they were sworn police officers, they’d drop their fingerprint brushes and respond to hot calls when necessary.
I remember the uproar when the department hired the first civilian Police Evidence Technicians. Old timers were convinced they wouldn’t be capable of properly processing a crime scene since they had not responded to thousands of scenes as an officer, and therefore couldn’t see “the big picture.” Others were concerned that civilians would be hurt and possibly killed by the criminal element out on the streets, since they didn’t carry firearms to protect themselves as officers did. For years, we had both sworn and non-sworn techs working together. After a while, the non-sworn techs were trusted to handle homicide scenes, and eventually, the sworn officer tech positions were eliminated.
My character will see many changes in the department and the law enforcement profession after his 27-year absence. Technology has greatly supplemented replaced shoe leather. Cell phones and computers allow better communication but less autonomy for officers and investigators. And the political oversight and interference has multiplied. But the very nature of policing has not changed, and that will allow my character to feel right at home. The officers, with the support of the professional staff, are still dedicated to protecting and serving the citizens of Oakland and holding the Thin Blue Line that separates good from evil and order from chaos.