UnderCurrents: Pandas, Flying Squads, and Two Bloody Weeks

Friday February 06, 2004

Back in my other home, in South Carolina, there used to be a neighborhood woman who could predict the weather by the pain in her knee joints. I’ve never been able to do that, but lately I’ve been getting pretty good at predicting when an Oakland City Council election is coming up. When Henry Chang gets in the paper proposing some law about police or violence or something like that, it’s time to get ready to vote. 

Mr. Chang was first elected as the at-large member of Oakland’s City Council after the death of Frank Ogawa in 1994. Most Oakland residents don’t know that there is an at-large member on the city council who is representing all of us, which seems to suit Mr. Chang perfectly well. An observer reports Mr. Chang told a Greater Mandana Action Coaliton organization the other night that he prefers to let citizens go directly to their district councilmembers for assistance, leaving him virtually “invisible.” “Invisible,” by the way, was Mr. Chang’s word. 

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the at-large council seat was considered the “Asian” seat, set aside in a sort of a backroom, gentlemen’s/ladies’ agreement because it was difficult for Asian-descent Oaklanders to win any of the district council seats. It was not a perfect compromise, but a good one, since a city government is better served when all of its large ethnic groups are represented. But that sort of lost its purpose after two folks of Asian descent were elected to council districts—first Danny Wan, and then Jean Quan. And so now Mr. Chang has to figure out other reasons to convince us why we should keep him on the city council. 

Most days, Mr. Chang spends his time working to get the government of the People’s Republic of China to send over pandas to live at Knowland Zoo in Oakland, and has made several speeches on that issue at city council, and has made a number trips to China for that purpose. He’s also gotten the council to authorize sending money to China to induce them to send us the pandas. Why it is so important for Oakland to have pandas living at the Knowland Zoo is not quite clear, and in any event, “HE’S WORKING TO GET YOU THOSE PANDAS!” is not quite the slogan one would want to take to Oakland voters. We’re easy, but not that easy. 

So four years ago, just around election time, Mr. Chang advanced a proposal to decrease the number of handguns on Oakland’s streets. If there was a decrease in the number of handguns on the streets of Oakland, I have not so noticed. But that is not the point. Mr. Chang was re-elected in 2000 over several opponents. He made himself invisible again for several years to work on that panda thing, uncloaking every now and again to give us periodic updates. The pandas—normally reclusive animals—have managed to remain more invisible than even Mr. Chang. 

Faced with a tough challenge in the March election by newcomer Melanie Shelby, Mr. Chang resurfaced just a few days ago with a proposal to put cameras in Oakland police cars. The idea, it seems, is that we can get some sort of notion of what our police officers are doing out here on the streets of Oakland. Some of us already have a pretty good idea, of course, but others appear to need convincing. In any event, does this mean that there will soon be cameras mounted on Oakland police cars? Well, no, not necessarily. While the government of the People’s Republic of China appear to be perfectly content to welcome Mr. Chang as a periodic visitor and to accept the Oakland money he sends, there is no evidence that they intend to ever actually send us any pandas. And so, while Chief Richard Word says in the newspaper that he does not think that the camera idea is a terribly bad thing, we will have to wait and see. 

If the Oakland police cars ever do get cameras, however, they will show a decidedly different landscape than we saw just a few weeks ago, at least out here in East Oakland, where I live. The rolling “Operation Impact” squads of California Highway Patrol officers and Alameda County Sheriffs Deputies and Oakland Police Department officers of last fall have become sort of invisible themselves, disappearing virtually overnight from the International Boulevard corridor, leaving the OPD cruisers to go it alone again. 

One would hope that at some point, the public is going to be given some sort of accounting on the results of this grand experiment in police saturation, and we will be able to measure its success, or lack thereof. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to make do with our own limited observations. 

Operation Impact consisted of squads of officers from the three agencies virtually shutting down several dark and poor sections of Oakland during many weekends to, according to the police, “get… some of the criminal element off the streets… [to] reduce the possibility for more homicides.” The Oakland Tribune reported last September that “three such [Operation Impact] sweeps…have resulted in 240 arrests over the past week. Crime, violence and calls for police response in the areas targeted have decreased significantly, officials said.” 

A month and a half later, the Tribune quoted a CHP spokesperson as saying, “Every time we are out there, there are no street homicides and it reduces police calls for service.” 

Summing up the program in early January, the Tribune paraphrased remarks by Chief Word, stating the chief said that “teamwork by the law enforcement agencies made a big dent in gun violence in the last quarter of 2003.” 

Well, Oakland homicides did drop dramatically in the last quarter of 2003, but they began to spike again in December, jumping to 10 in a bloody first two weeks of 2004. All of this occurred during the time that Operation Impact was still in effect. 

Perhaps Chief Word will let us know why, sometime.