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Story: Oakland Police Blues and Hope

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On a Thursday afternoon in October, the Oakland Police Department was planning for trouble. Word came down that the judge in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit cop who killed a man on New Years Eve, would announce the next day that the trial should be moved out of Alameda County. “There goes Friday,” said a police Captain, popping his head into Lieutenant Sharon Williams’ office on OPD’s fourth floor.  

OPD has suffered its share of bad days in the last year, but as a new police chief takes charge of the department, there is a sense that OPD will be able to shed a culture of low morale. Lt. Williams said that optimism is replacing the malaise that has shadowed OPD’s rank and file in recent years. “Everyone I talk to about [the new chief] is excited,” said Williams.

Goodwill and optimism are promising. But the new chief will need more than that. Early indications show that Anthony Batts, who comes to Oakland from Long Beach, has a different approach to crime fighting than his predecessor, Wayne Tucker. Before he arrived on the job, Batts sent every officer with the rank of lieutenant and above a questionnaire which would be familiar to anyone who has worked at a company when a new CEO has arrived. But some of the questions Batts posed to his new subordinates offer clues about how he intends to change the department.

In addition to asking for a resume and an accounting of achievements, Batts also asked them to list the five people they regard as the organization’s best leaders. Batts wrote that if the answer is five sergeants, then list five sergeants. The point is clear. Batts is seeking talent and ideas throughout OPD. He will look beyond the pool of cops the previous administration groomed for advancement.

This will sit well with OPD’s rawest recruits. A new generation of police officers in Oakland and elsewhere are veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the military’s reputation for a rigid top down hierarchy, the United States military has embraced war-fighting innovation coming from grunts in the field.

A pair of essay questions in the questionnaire is blunt: Why do you think crime in Oakland is so high, and what would you do to reduce crime? One has to believe a problem can be solved before setting out to find a solution. Police Chief Tucker spoke frequently about Oakland’s “demographics.” When officials in Oakland use this word, they are usually explaining why they have failed to fix something, and the blame is shifted to the city’s black, brown, and poor residents. The hope is that Batts wont tolerate a mindset among officers that crime in Oakland is a phenomenon beyond the control of law enforcement.

For one thing, this line of thinking has been demonstrated to be false. One need look no farther than Batts’ old beat to see that competent policing can yield reductions. Long Beach looks more like Oakland than other city in the country save for its significantly lower crime rate. With a comparable number of cops per 1,000 citizens, Long Beach has a lower crime rate than Oakland. In 2007, Long Beach reported half the number of violent crimes than Oakland despite an extra 80,000 residents.

In Long Beach this was achieved through well-executed and well-defined community policing, which a member of Long Beach’s Citizen Police Complaint Commission described as “making the police department accountable to the people it serves.” Batts succeeded, said Commissioner Carolyn Smith-Watts, by making the workings of the Long Beach Police Department transparent.

Smith-Watts, said that she is sorry to see Batts go to Oakland. She’s worried about him. “I know it’s more volatile up there,” she said. She also praised him for reducing crime in Long Beach. The president of the union that represents Oakland’s police officers suggested to the New York Times that the rank and file are waiting to see if Batts is going to be a crime fighter or a politician. The idea that a good crime-fighter is not political is absurd.

An effective police chief is a shrewd politician. A police chief must know what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and to whom to say it. That savvy was a secret to Batts’ success in Long Beach, said Smith Watts, who was herself a police officer in Michigan before relocating to California. “He went to a lot of community meetings. He knew how to speak the language of the community, and his troops followed that,” said Smith Watts.

According to Smith Watts, Batts embraced a program that had police officers regularly attending church and religious services throughout the city. “He wanted to show the grandmas and the grandpas and the aunts and uncles, that [police work] was still a worthy profession,” said Smith Watts. 

Smith Watts said that the discipline he modeled contributed to a decline in a style of policing she characterized as “hot dog,” by which she meant a guns blasting, tires squealing aggressive posture that can create a gulf between cops and citizens.

“Hot dog” does not accurately describe how Oakland police officers conduct themselves. But as anyone who has driven in an Oakland police cruiser through East or West Oakland can attest, there’s work to be done bridging the divide between young black and Latino males and OPD. A deputy with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department said he was once told by another sheriff, “If you work at OPD, you will do things see things, and be a part of things that will make it impossible for you to be hired anywhere else.”

This culture gap may not be diminishing, but something heartening is already happening on Oakland streets. Batts arrives at a time when crime in Oakland is decreasing. As A Better Oakland reported in October, violent crimes are down 12 percent from a year ago, and all major crimes are down 14 percent during the same period.

This is one of the few spots of good news for OPD this year. In addition to a search warrant scandal, and a lawsuit claiming that the current head of OPD’s Internal Affairs Division covered up a fellow officer’s murder of a suspect several years ago. But without question the worst day in the history of OPD was March 21, when a convicted felon and a rapist murdered four police officers following a traffic stop.

OPD has not felt the final reverberation from that massacre. Sources from inside OPD say that report will likely come down quite hard on three commanders who supervised the taking of the apartment building where Lovelle Mixon had hidden. Jeff Thomason, OPD’s spokesperson, said that the report is not close to being finished.

The murder of Chauncy Bailey continues to haunt OPD. In October, the acting police chief put Derwin Longmire back on duty despite considerable evidence gathered by The Chauncey Bailey Project that Longmire bungled the investigation through ineptitude or sloth. Longmire returns to his duties even after the state Justice Department found that Longmire did not handle the case properly.

On the Friday before Batts was sworn in, OPD officers braced themselves for unrest outside the Alameda County Superior Court House. The judge did decide that Mehserle’s trial should move, but the officers weren’t called on to keep order. It turned out to be a quiet Friday after all.

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Keywords

oakland, police, crime

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OPD Blues by Alex Gronke and Spot.Us is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at spot.us.

Discussion

  • But I was hoping for something a bit more in-depth, particularly since we were waiting for a very long time for the story.  I'm not complaining about the wait, there were valid reason to see how things played out with the new chief etc etc. 

    But this does feel like a high-altitude overview of the many things that are going on in and around the OPD, but basically sheds little light on the internals of OPD, which was the original point of the story as I understood it. 

    Perhaps it would have been better to focus in on fewer "events" to get a deeper look at the character of OPD, even if it is in flux at the moment. 

    Spot.us has already refunded "points" to put to another story, which indicates sound judgement on their part, since this was long delayed. 

    This story isn't a total disappointment, it just misses it's stated goal as I see it. 

    -J

  • This reads like something I'd get out of the Chronicle? It doesn't offer the depth or insight I expected from such a long-brewing investigative report. What are the real issues, internally? How are things truly perceived? This just seems like a friendly introduction to the new chief.

  • And you basically answer none of the questions you set out to address.

  • Not much beef. I'd love to peer over the essay answers.

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