Oakland Police Chief Leaves Trail of Failure: J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 22, 2004

The talk around town this week is that the sudden decision of Richard Word to resign his job as chief of police of big-city Oakland to take up the same position in little-city Vacaville is a terrible step down for Mr. Word and, therefore, a significant personal defeat. I don’t know. The assumption, here, is that bigger is always better, and that in order to demonstrate career progress, an Oakland executive must necessarily move on to places like Atlanta, Detroit, or Los Angeles, where national reputations can be made. In fact, not knowing the state of either Mr. Word’s mind or his heart, we can’t be sure that he doesn’t consider a transfer of responsibility from the 400,000 citizens of Oakland to the 90,000 citizens of Vacaville as nothing short of a breath of fresh air. 

But, then, that’s from Mr. Word’s point of view. 

From Oakland’s point of view, Mr. Word’s five year term as chief of police can be described in a few of words: Defeat. Significant mistakes. And, oh yes, failure. 

Let us, briefly, point out for whom, and why. 

Mr. Word’s selection shortly after the election of Jerry Brown as mayor of Oakland marked a significant defeat for the black political establishment of the city, from which that black political establishment has never fully recovered. Mr. Brown, you might remember, easily outpolled seven African-American opponents in a city where African-Americans are the largest population block (though not the majority) and where two black mayors had just ended long, consecutive tenures. (Mr. Brown, if you didn’t know, is white.) Mr. Brown, you also might remember, campaigned in 1998 partly on the platform of breaking up Oakland’s black political establishment (or you might not remember, since those ideas were talked about in the Wall Street Journal—interestingly enough—rather than in the Oakland Tribune). After Mr. Brown’s inaugural address, former Mayor Elihu Harris (who is African-American) said, a little acidly, “I don’t think [Jerry Brown] cares much about diversity,” voicing the black fears that Mr. Brown was going to sweep away the African-American gains of the past 20 years. And so, when Mr. Brown announced that he was firing (black) Oakland police chief Joseph Samuels, members of the black political establishment decided to oppose the new mayor and tried to keep Mr. Samuels on the job. 

Several things happened, at the gallop. The black political establishment lost, and Mr. Samuels was fired. Mr. Samuels turned out to be a bad chief who should have been fired, as we later learned after he took over the job of Richmond police chief and ran that position into the ground. Meanwhile Mr. Brown replaced the African-American Mr. Samuels with the African-American Mr. Word, completely undercutting the black leaders’ charge that Mr. Brown was anti-black. And if you haven’t heard much from what we used to call the “black political establishment” in Oakland, you might trace its decline and fall back to that incident. 

But did Mr. Word do much better in Oakland than Mr. Samuels would have done? 

Well, despite the fact of Vacaville City Manager David Van Kirk’s praises of Mr. Word as “a recognized national leader in the field of law enforcement … credited with developing many innovative police programs,” and Mr. Brown’s praise of Mr. Word as a “top-flight professional,” Mr. Word’s tenure in Oakland was actually marked by several significant failures by the organization he was leading: the Oakland Police Department. As its leader, its failures are his failures. 

How many failures, and how bad? You could talk about the Riders scandal, in which four police officers were arrested—arrested!—for allegedly assaulting citizens, planting evidence, falsifying police reports, lying on the witness stand, and stealing drugs and money from arrestees. The accused police officers say that they got the green light to “bend the law” from Mr. Word himself, who wanted the officers to clean up drug trafficking in West Oakland (that wasn’t one of the “innovative police programs” to which Mr. Van Kirk refers, we hope). Or you could talk about the $11 million police misconduct lawsuit settlement. In that legal action, brought by Oakland attorney John Burris, Oakland agreed to pay cash settlements to 119 plaintiffs because of police actions similar to the ones that got the Riders in trouble (the Riders were some of the police named in that lawsuit, but they weren’t the only police named in that lawsuit). In addition, the lawsuit forced the Oakland Police Department into a court-ordered monitoring program to make sure it lives up to a promise to reform its conduct.  

Significant mistakes? There was the time Chief Word diverted police from North Oakland in order to chase joyriders in East Oakland, thus causing North Oakland’s murder rate to triple. The police had to apologize to the North Oakland folk for that one. Or you could talk about the notorious April 2003 Port of Oakland debacle in which Oakland police fired tear gas and wooden dowels at unarmed antiwar protesters, or the earlier antiwar protest in which at least one Oakland police officer allegedly used his motorcycle to run over a protester. Mercy, mercy. The list goes on and on. 

But the biggest symbol of Mr. Word’s failure as Oakland police chief—in my mind, anyway—is how he presided over Oakland’s conflict with its black youth. That conflict was—and continues to be—marked by the city’s years-long attempt to shut down street sideshows, an effort that once cost the city a million dollars a year in police overtime. Two highlights—or lowlights—of that effort come to mind. One was the long-ignored comment by Mr. Word that the police “probably made a mistake” in driving the sideshows out of the parking lots—where they were bothering almost nobody—and onto the city’s streets, where they ended up bothering a whole lots of folks. Problem was, Mr. Word never corrected that mistake. The second lowlight was the aborted police effort to look for legal alternatives to the sideshows. At one point, the police department identified an experienced, nationally-recognized event organizer who was willing to build a legal sideshow venue, handle the insurance problems, take the legal responsibilities, and put up the necessary money to finance the effort. Implementing that idea would have solved Oakland’s sideshow problem. But the police sat on the plan, never presenting it to the general public, and it eventually died in obscurity. Why did that happen? Damned if I know for sure. But it was certainly a failure of Mr. Word’s leadership. Under him the Oakland Police Department foundered, drifting along without a clear sense of direction or purpose. Community policing is in a shambles and in many neighborhoods, police-citizen relations are almost nonexistent. 

In the end, Mr. Word’s failures are also Mayor Brown’s, who raised the chief up to his present position. Mr. Word was hired during that odd period in which the mayor was seeking out African-Americans who were prominent and successful in one field of work, in order to put them into positions where they were guaranteed to disappoint. And so, he tried to hire both Angela Davis and Maya Angelou to serve as Oakland’s chief librarian, presumably on the theory that someone who writes books ought to know where to put them on the shelves. Fortunately, both Ms. Davis and Ms. Angelou turned down the offers. Mr. Brown also offered the job of Parks and Recreation Department head to Harry Edwards, a man who had no previous experience in the running of either parks or recreation programs or, for that matter, running any type of program at all. Unfortunately Mr. Edwards accepted the position, and managed to live down to all our low expectations. 

So it was with Mr. Word, a man who might have made a good captain, but never demonstrated the qualifications for the challenges of being the top dog. He leaves us with a lot of work left to be done.?