Is It Time to Dissolve the Oakland Police Department?

How is this for a novel idea?

“The police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

Or this?

“The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.”

These statements were not made by an advocate for police reform but by Sir Robert Peel, who served as the English prime minister during the first half of the 1800s and created London’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. Peel was a Conservative politician who argued that effective policing depended on public support that diminished proportionately to police use of force. He also stated, “Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”

Whether policing in the United States, particularly in cities like Oakland, ever conformed to Peel’s principles is surely subject to debate. What is not controversial, however, is the reality that Oakland’s police are not members of the community. Fewer than 10 percent live in Oakland.

More importantly, Oakland’s police do not have the support of Oakland residents, or at least a high percentage of those residents who are African American or Hispanic, particularly young people. These residents do not experience the police as “demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law,” but often just the opposite. Young Black and Brown men experience the racial profiling that leads to their being stopped, frisked, bullied, intimidated, and worse.

Oakland is infamous for the police violence that has led to 541 police abuse lawsuits from January 1, 2000, to August 21, 2012. According to the City Attorney’s office, Oakland paid out $11,466,868 to resolve 20 of these cases. This figure does not include the millions spent to hire outside counsel to defend the city or the $10.9 million spent to settle the Riders case and the millions more spent to monitor and argue about OPD’s compliance with it.

KTVU Channel 2 did a study of total costs spent by Bay Area cities on police abuse cases. The study showed that Oakland spent over $57 million from 2001 through 2011. By comparison, two cities with populations more than twice that of Oakland’s, San Francisco and San Jose, spent $28 million and $8.6 million, respectively.

The Riders case illustrates both the extent of police abuse and the failures of elected and appointed city officials to comply with court-ordered reforms of the OPD. In January 2003, Oakland agreed to settle a lawsuit (Allen, et al. v. City of Oakland) which was based on allegations that a group of officers in West Oakland (the “Riders”) had engaged in a campaign to harass, beat, falsely accuse, plant drugs on, and rob African Americans they portrayed as drug dealers. (A similar case involving Oakland Housing Authority police arose in the early 1990s.) The Negotiated Settlement Agreement in the Allen case required the City to reform its policies and to demonstrate compliance with its new policies to protect residents from police abuse. The 51 specific requirements were to be accomplished in no longer than seven years under monitors chosen by the city but reporting to the United States District Court.

The Federal Court Should Take Control of the OPD

In 2009, Oakland admitted that it had not accomplished many of the Allen agreement’s requirements, so the decree was extended. As of September 2012, so little progress has been made that federal judge Thelton Henderson, who is overseeing the Allen case, is threatening a complete trusteeship over the department following a hearing scheduled for December.

City officials, led by mayors Jerry Brown, Ron Dellums, and Jean Quan, have claimed commitment to the reforms but have not delivered. A series of weak police chiefs – Richard Word, Wayne Tucker, Anthony Batts, and Howard Jordan – promise action but, at best, drag their feet.

In perhaps the most stunning demonstration of contempt for the court’s proceedings and the welfare of Oakland’s residents, in June 2012 the City Council voted 5-3 to voluntarily pay $40,000 in punitive damages awarded against Officer Ingo Mayer for violating the civil rights of two men he pulled over for an alleged traffic violation and then forced to pull down their pants in front of a crowd of people on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The federal court’s judgment in that case had already cost Oakland over $1.0 million, plus its own legal costs. But as the Council signaled, “Do what you want boys. We have your back.”

Rather than rein in rogue cops, many City Council members scheme to give them more arbitrary power. In 2011, the Council finally agreed to limit the City’s strategy of seeking gang injunctions in the face of massive community opposition. Youth curfews remain on the agenda, and some Council members have expressed their admiration for stop and frisk policies like those utilized in New York City. What is particularly astounding about the gang injunction, curfew, and stop and frisk discussions is that there is widespread agreement among criminologists and policing experts that none of these policies are successful in deterring violent crime. What they do accomplish is intimidation, racial profiling, and increased hostility between the police and the community.

Oakland is not unique in experiencing police abuse. The Bay Area city of Vallejo is in the midst of an epidemic of police killings, with at least five deaths this year alone. In its recent study, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reported that during the first six months of 2012, 120 African Americans were killed by police, security guards, and vigilantes.

Some urban police departments have actually reformed their practices. Under Mayor Dave Bing, Detroit has sharply reduced police abuse cases with the advice of the same consultant who is monitoring OPD for the federal court. The Los Angeles Police Department, with a long history of violent abuse against the city’s Black and Brown communities and political activists, appears to be changing course under new leadership.

If Judge Henderson takes direct control of OPD, he could appoint a police chief who will report directly to him and will have a mandate to take all actions necessary to curb abuse and fire the most abusive officers.

Abusive Police are Just Doing Their Jobs?

In her compelling book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the criminal courts and prison system, motivated by the “war on drugs,” has succeeded slavery and legalized inequality (the old Jim Crow) as the dominant means of social control over African Americans in the United States. Since the early 1980s, the prison population in the U.S. has climbed from about 300,000 to over two million. The greatest single factor in the increase represents people serving time for non-violent drug offenses. The number of people serving time on drug cases grew from about 41,000 in 1980 to over 500,000 in 2010. Drug arrests tripled, although drug use by Americans did not grow during that period. More than double the number imprisoned are on probation or parole.

African Americans are vastly over-represented among those convicted of drug offenses, although African Americans do not sell or use drugs in greater percentages than do white Americans. Ms. Alexander reminds us that the Reagan administration promoted its drug war with constant references to crack whores, crack babies, and violent Black drug dealers, images that the mass media, television, and movies duly promoted.

The war on drugs has transformed U.S. police departments. The federal government’s spending on drug law enforcement increased from about $157 million in 1981 to over $2.2 billion in 1991. Much of the funds have been funneled to local law enforcement agencies for narcotics task forces, training, intelligence, and equipment. The Pentagon has provided airplanes, helicopters, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, bullet proof helmets, and night vision goggles to police departments that signed up to fight the drug war. SWAT teams proliferated with federal funding.

The federal government has rewarded local police departments by tying the amount of drug war funding to the number of drug arrests. Additionally, new laws passed beginning in 1984 allow local police departments to keep up to 80 percent of the assets seized during drug arrests – money, cars, and homes – regardless of whether the person arrested is ultimately convicted of a criminal offense.

One result of the war on drugs is that local police departments have been transformed into armies that benefit from their campaigns to arrest drug users and small time dealers. Every arrest is a profit center. Every young Black or Brown man hanging out on the street represents an easy opportunity to increase the police department’s budget.

Racial stereotypes built into the public consciousness by the war on drugs inform police decisions as well. Police officers, like many members of the public, equate young Black and Brown men with violence. One result is the “shoot first” mentality. A partial list of recent Bay Area victims of police killings of African American men follows this model: Oakland Police Department – Alan Blueford (2012), Fletcher Jackson, John Sloan, Michael Huerta, Matthew Cicelski, Martin Flenaugh (2011), Obataiye Edwards, Derrick Jones (2010), Jody Woodfox (2008), Gary King, Andrew Moppin (2007); San Francisco Police Department – Kenneth Harding (2011); BART Police – Charles Hill (2011), Ted Collins (2010), Oscar Grant (2009); San Leandro Police – Gwendolyn Killings (2010); Oakland School District Police – Raheim Brown (2011).

Some of us have been involved in struggles for justice for the victims of police abuse since 1973, when 14-year-old Tyrone Guyton died after he was shot in the back by three Emeryville police detectives. Little has changed in the last 40 years. Young men of color die at the hands of the police. In a minority of cases their families recover monetary damages. Individual officers are rarely held accountable.

Can the police be reformed?

The question we face is whether police departments can be reformed. Many believe that they cannot. Their role as agents of social control under the existing order is fixed and permanent. That perspective may be correct.

But just as models for running successful public schools in the nation’s big cities exist but are not implemented for political reasons, it seems at least possible to develop a model for community safety that fulfills people’s legitimate need for safe and secure neighborhoods without the endemic police abuse that exists under the present system. In other words, under the existing system of power relationships in U.S. society, can we invent a new system to protect public safety that does not perpetuate ongoing violations of people’s rights?

We do not pretend to have the answers to these issues. Whether we have a chance of success depends in large part on our ability to build a mass movement that unites the Black and Brown communities, working people, and progressive activists.

To begin, I would like to pose some questions and promote a dialogue to answer them:

1. What sort of organization should be developed to secure public safety in urban communities like Oakland?

2. Who should be employed and entrusted to perform public safety functions?

3. How should public safety workers be trained?

4. How should they be armed?

5. What strategies should be employed to promote public safety?

6. How should we deal with people who harm their neighbors and resist efforts to convince them to act safely and peacefully?

I urge people with thoughts on these issues to present them with the goal of developing a strategy on how to move forward to end police abuse.

Dan Siegel is an attorney in Oakland.