Policing Oakland

Oakland’s community is in turmoil over crime and policing. A sharp increase in robberies, burglaries, and homicides has the public, especially middle class home owners, demanding solutions. Community activists, particularly young African Americans, Latinos, and their allies, continue to oppose police tactics that target them regardless of criminal activity.

Finding effective solutions will take time. There are no magic strategies, and no out of town saviors – not even William Bratton. But we can learn from history to avoid creating more problems than we solve and to lay the basis for strategies that advance public safety.

1. There is no contradiction between effective policing and constitutional policing.

Getting involved in debating false dichotomies never solves anything. Some Oakland politicians, newspaper columnists, and well-meaning members of the community have become distracted by the argument that police effectiveness is compromised by judges, civil libertarians and others who demand that the police respect people’s rights. Actually, just the opposite is true.

Sir Robert Peel, who founded the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, wrote, “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions,” and “police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.” Recently, Professor Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska wrote, “Police experts from around the country know that constitutional policing is a necessary element of effective crime control…Trust and cooperation are lost when the police engage in unconstitutional and unprofessional conduct: when they use excessive force; are verbally abusive; stop, question, and frisk people because of their race or ethnicity; and are perceived to go unpunished for their actions.”

The point is obvious. For the Oakland Police Department to be effective it must win the trust of Oakland’s people, particularly young African Americans and Latinos, who experience police bullying and racial profiling on a regular basis. Oakland will never hire enough police to maintain public safety unless the community is a willing participant in these efforts.

2. There are no instant solutions.

In their eagerness to propose solutions that offer hope to people worried about crime, politicians and police officials continue to advocate for strategies that amount to nothing more than racial profiling. Because many law breakers fit a familiar stereotype – young, dark-skinned men who live in poor neighborhoods – we often hear proposals suggesting that if the police are allowed free reign to accost people who meet that definition, crime will plummet.

In Oakland we continue to hear demands for (1) gang injunctions; (2) stop and frisk campaigns; and (3) youth curfews. Even putting aside the minor (!) issues of discrimination and violations of constitutional rights, the problem with these solutions is that there is little or no evidence that they work, and they often divert police resources from more productive strategies.

Oakland already has two gang injunctions covering areas of North and East Oakland. Consistent with research in other parts of the nation, there is absolutely no indication that violent crimes in the areas covered by the injunctions is any different from that in surrounding communities. This is not surprising, in part because alleged gang members are not responsible for most crimes in the areas covered by the injunctions.

Stop and frisk strategies are likewise ineffective. In New York City, police made about 700,000 stops in 2011, with Black and Hispanic men making up 85 percent of the total. In one of five cases officers used physical force against those who objected, even verbally, to the stops. Police recovered guns in only one of every 800 stops. (The New York Times, February 12, 2013.) New York’s policies have led to protest marches by thousands and successful lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of police actions.

The same is true of youth curfews. Just a tiny percentage of young people out late at night are committing crimes. Police acknowledge that most crimes committed by young people occur during the day.

People who are interested in finding solutions to crime must do their homework. Countless research articles demonstrate that there are no quick solutions.

3. Real solutions will be real difficult

The sad news is that turning Oakland into a safe community may be all but impossible in the face of ongoing inequality based upon race and poverty. It is not breaking news that most street crime is committed by poor people with no jobs and few prospects. Recent studies by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and others show that the greatest predictors of criminal activity are poverty, unemployment, family instability, and substance abuse.

Young people especially chafe under the conditions of long-term poverty, unemployment, poor education, lack of health care, and unstable housing. Tough on crime policies such as the three strikes laws have filled California’s prisons to unprecedented levels. The number imprisoned today is three times what it was in 1982. Oakland’s courts send dozens of people away for long prison terms every week. Yet crime continues to rise.

It is no wonder that many see the police as an agency dedicated to social control rather than the protection of life, property, and individual rights. In her compelling book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the criminal courts and prison system, fueled by federal spending on 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.

Solutions require different strategies, not more of the same.

4. Even partial solutions require new strategies.

As bleak as the current situation appears, there are strategies that will help reduce crime in Oakland. These strategies require that the city unite around a program to provide support for people at risk of committing crimes and to create a public safety partnership to heal our communities. Here are some steps in that direction:

(1) End the Negotiated Settlement of the Allen case by finally implementing the police reforms required by the federal court. Eleven years after the agreement was signed, and then revised, and then revised again late last year, the City has been unable to meet the requirements of the agreement. Judge Thelton Henderson will soon appoint a Compliance Director to oversee OPD. The case has now cost upwards of $15 million. Enough is more than enough. The OPD’s failures waste the City’s treasure; more importantly, they send a clear message that Oakland does not want to reform.

(2) Find strong and effective leadership for the OPD. City officials, led by mayors Jerry Brown, Ron Dellums, and Jean Quan, have claimed a 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. Now we face death by a thousand consultants. Oakland would not need William Bratton to develop a crime fighting strategy or a court-appointed Compliance Director to oversee the reforms mandated by the Allen settlement if it had a police chief with the ability to do so. This is not rocket science. In recent years even the police departments in Detroit and Los Angeles have improved both in fighting crime and gaining community trust. Oakland can as well. Change starts at the top.

(3) Involve the community in policing itself. In 1996 Oakland adopted a community policing ordinance (Resolution 72727, amended in 2005 by Resolution 79235) based on the premise that public safety requires a partnership between the police and the community. Mayor Jerry Brown scrapped that plan in favor of a strategy that led to the Riders case and the Allen settlement. The community policing model calls for:

– Community councils organized to improve public safety and advocate for better services, especially for young people.

– Long term assignments of police officers to particular communities so that the police and community can develop relationships based on trust rather than fear.

– The creation of community patrols, outreach workers, recreation activities, church and school partnerships, and other means that involve communities in efforts to improve the lives of their neighbors.

(4) Revitalize the organization and priorities of the OPD. Oakland does need more police, especially on patrol. With approximately 55 neighborhood police patrol beats, adequate staffing for neighborhood policing would require approximately 330 officers, 47 sergeants, 10 lieutenants, and one captain or deputy chief. (Each beat requires five officers to have one on duty at all times, plus a problem solving officer to work with the community on pro-active solutions. Standard leadership protocols require one sergeant for each seven officers, one lieutenant for each seven sergeants, etc.) Staffing this model would double the number of officers currently on patrol at many times of the week.

The department’s bureau of investigations should be reorganized from the present model that deploys many small units organized by crime types (homicide, burglary, etc.), each with city-wide responsibility. This model leads to overworked and unsuccessful investigators who typically “solve” less than 30 percent of the homicides committed in Oakland each year. (East Bay Express, November 14-20. 2012.) Instead, investigators should be deployed locally, perhaps two to five in each beat, to work with patrol and problem solving officers and the community to address serious offenses on a neighborhood basis.

Creating a safe and orderly community is an impossible and in many ways an undesirable goal in a society as sharply divided by race, ethnicity, power, and wealth as the United States is today. But while we strive to create a better society, we can take steps to improve public safety and the conduct of our police in the cities we inhabit today.

Dan Siegel is a civil rights lawyer in Oakland.