Election Section

Cell Phone Police Column Gets ‘Interesting’ Reactions: J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 27, 2004

A recent column on cell phone policing in an Oakland neighborhood got some interesting reactions. Let us sort through them, in the hopes of finding some clarity on the subject. 

The police cell phone column triggered a Jim Herron Zamora article in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Zamora wrote that “a community anti-crime group has come to the aid of the cash-strapped Oakland Police Department and made it easier to contact officers by buying a special cell phone for a police team in North Oakland.” I thought it was a bad idea, because it appeared to favor members of the donating group over others. 

In response, someone forwarded me two e-mails circulated to the OPD@yahoogroups.com newsgroup, one written by Shattuck Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council Chair Don Link, another by Mr. John Cascio, who was mentioned in the Zamora article as the initiator of the cell phone purchase. 

“I suspect [Mr. Allen-Taylor] wrote [the column] without doing his homework,” Mr. Link writes. “At least one other reporter for a major newspaper in our area wrote in to suggest that this was probably the problem with his article’s intent and mistaken conclusions. Those who rise to the top ranks of journalism get their facts right, do all of the background homework needed, and then get it right in their stories. We can hope that he will learn from this experience and do more preparation.” 

“It is interesting how facts change and stories twist as tales get re-told,” Mr. Cascio writes in his e-mail posting. “Particularly when it is reporters, responding to and spinning something that another reporter published. To set the record straight… The expected use of the phone is for internal [police] communications. ... No one in the [Beat 8 Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council] expects to get the cell phone number.” 

But the question is not what the NCPC expects will happen, but what the police expect will happen. To that, we return to Mr. Zamora’s article: 

“The cell phone…will make it easier for residents to update officers about crime problems…,” the article reads. “The phone number will not be released to the general public but will be shared with community groups or crime victims who are on the lookout for specific suspects or activities, said Lt. Lawrence Green, who oversees patrols and crime reduction teams in North Oakland.” 

After I received Mr. Cascio’s e-mail, I passed it on to Mr. Zamora, who interviewed both Mr. Cascio and Lt. Green for the Chronicle article. “I’m not sure exactly what Mr. Cascio means by the term ‘internal,’” Mr. Zamora writes me back. “My impression from police is that the phone would not be used exclusively for officer-to-officer conversations.” But perhaps this will turn out to be one of those he-said-she-said kind of mysteries that never get solved. 

Not so are some of the assertions of Sam Herbert, a South Berkeley resident whose letter appeared in the Aug. Daily Planet. 

In the original column, I wrote that my vision of “community policing” was of police officers getting out of their cars, walking a beat on foot, and getting to know the neighborhood and the neighbors. “It is understandable that Mr. Allen-Taylor longs for a simpler time, when individual officers had the luxury of time and limited responsibilities, and could reasonably expect to be able to meet and greet each resident in their district by name,” Ms. Herbert writes, adding that “[b]y contrast, current beat assignments involve responsibility for densely-populated urban communities, and cover geographical areas too extensive to cover on foot.” 

Poor, naive, unhomeworking Mr. Allen-Taylor. Except that the Oakland Police Department actually does manage to get out of its police cars and patrol some districts on a more personal basis. Some districts. As recently as two years ago, I watched OPD officers regularly patrol the downtown area—Broadway and Franklin between, roughly, 15th Street and 19th Street—in midday, on foot. As recently as a month ago, I watched OPD officers regularly patrol the Fruitvale Transit Village plaza area in the late afternoon, on bicycles, slowly. In both instances, I watched the patrol officers chat with merchants and passersby, seemingly without discrimination, establishing exactly the type of neighborhood repoire which Ms. Herbert believes only happened in a “simpler time.” 

Such daylight, foot-or-bike patrols might have a positive effect along the high-crime, International Boulevard corridor between 82nd and 98th avenues. But if any such patrols have been held out there, I haven’t seem them. Instead, in the past year or so, the OPD has concentrated on traffic stops in that area as one crime prevention measure (see “Operation Impact”), a policy which has led to some disturbing results. 

Ms. Herbert also writes that she is “particularly offended by the libelous assertion [in the Allen-Taylor column] that ‘the Oakland Police Department plays favorites in whom it responds to.’” 

Does the Oakland Police Department discriminate? As if we needed another one, this week brings another example. On Tuesday, the Oakland Police Department’s Racial Profiling Task Force released results of a six-month RAND Corporation-conducted study which found “evidence of racial bias in certain traffic enforcement actions by police” as well as “mixed evidence of [racial] bias in [traffic] stop decisions.” 

While only 35 percent of Oakland residents are African-American, the report concluded that “[w]hen officers reported knowing the race of the driver in advance, 66 percent of the drivers stopped were black, compared with 45 percent when the police reported not knowing the race of the driver in advance.” In addition, the RAND report concluded that African-American drivers were more likely to have stops lasting 10 minutes or more, were more likely to be pat-searched for weapons following a traffic stop, and were twice as likely to be subject of a probable cause search than “similarly situated” white drivers. For those who think that the officers were justified in such higher-than-usual “probable cause” searches of black drivers because it’s mainly black folks who are running around town robbing and murdering, think again. “Only 18 percent of the searches resulted in an arrest,” the RAND report said, “casting doubt on either the officers’ reporting of probable cause or on the reasons a probable cause search was conducted.” 

This comes on the heels on allegations raised last May by Relman & Associates of Washington, D.C., the organization charged with independently monitoring the Oakland Police Department’s compliance with the “Rider lawsuit” reforms [you may remember that in early 2003, the OPD settled a lawsuit by some 100 Oakland residents charging that Oakland police officers had either beaten them, stolen from them, or forged evidence against them]. In its May report, the Relman group noted their concerns about streetside strip searches of “young men” being conducted by Oakland police officers, including allegations “that officers pulled down their pants and underwear, exposing their buttocks and genitalia to passers-by.” “In our professional experience,” the monitors wrote, “such searches are unnecessarily humiliating and dehumanizing (sometimes intentionally) and can immediately alienate citizens and destroy community respect for its police department.” You are free to use your own imagination as to either the race or the color of those young men. 

Perhaps the real problem in this homework thing—as raised by Mr. Link—is that we are reading from different books.›