Oakland Police Must Work for Neighbor Support: ByJ. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 29, 2004

A reader from a local newsgroup takes issue with the assertion in last week’s column that Chief Richard Word’s tenure as Oakland Police Chief was a failure. Chief Word recently announced that he is resigning from that position. 

“I feel you are being terribly unfair to Chief Word and this column is a really cheap shot!,” she writes. “Oakland would be a difficult place for any police chief. Chief Word has been pulled in a thousand directions by a thousand contending forces. He’s had to do battle with the [Oakland Police Officers Association] in order to get the Riders’ reforms in place…Please stop painting Rich Word the villain. You have the wrong enemy in your gunsights… 

“I think some of the blunders you lay at Chief Word’s doorstep might not necessarily be his. I think he had successes, and I think he had some failures. After the Port ‘blunder,’ Chief Word went directly to work trying to correct the situation by setting up a new crowd control policy. He admitted his department’s mistakes. And, we worked closely with community members including demonstrators and members of the community to institute new policies. As for the Riders fiasco, weren’t the officers involved fired by Chief Word?…[In addition] he brought down the murder rate this year. 

“…A lot of departmental corruption that existed when I first moved here is no more. There is far more accountability by officers in a community. We don’t hear complaints about officers on the take at our [Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council] meetings anymore. I think you have to judge the totality of his record and how far [the Oakland Police Department] has moved overall towards accountability. … 

“This does not mean that there are still not problems or work to be done. This is a recognition of what has been accomplished.”  

Respectfully, I disagree. I don’t think Mr. Word is a villain. I just don’t think he accomplished what he was supposed to do. 

Oakland can be an incredibly violent and frightening city. There are people in this town who are among the most vicious and cold-hearted on the planet, who will bust you in the head with a pipe or a bottle in order to get a few dollars cash out of your purse or wallet, or spray a street corner in midday with a 9-millimeter automatic—heedless of the children playing—in order to attempt to enact some revenge from some fellow gangster. There are people who will break out the window of your car with a brick to swipe the pocketbook or package carelessly left on the back seat, or hop your back fence to steal the tools out of your yard, or heist the window of your house when you are gone and rifle through your personal belongings. What they take from us is far more valuable than whatever material possessions they can gather up in their arms. They steal our freedom, our sense of security, our peace, and that is something no insurance claim can recover. Once taken, it is gone forever. On that, almost all of us can agree. 

Where we disagree is on who it is we should fear, and how we should attack that fear. 

Some people look at the rolling neighborhoods of the deep parts of East Oakland where I was born, and raised, and still live, and carry suspicion with them at every corner and down every broad boulevard. In the dark nights, down the narrow backstreets, they don’t even think about going. Unable to distinguish between the dark bodies they pass or see on nightly newscasts, unable to sift between the treacherous and the innocent, they hold some vague, indefinable fear of an unknown and unknowable “them,” and lock their minds and their doors against it all. 

But to many others, the violence and the fear has both a face and an identity. 

For years in my neighborhood, we were virtually terrorized by a single thief. We all knew who he was. During the long periods he was in jail you would grow careless about what you left in your car, or left unsecured in your yard. And then one morning would come and you’d walk out of the house and a neighbor would walk over and say, “They got me last night,” and you could almost make book on it that Charles (not his real name) was back on the street. And you’d have to be ultra-careful until you knew he was gone again. We did not fear each other. We feared Charles. 

The young people who party in the hip hop clubs, or the street-smart folks who hang on the corners, will tell you it’s the same thing about the violent ones. There are only a handful of them, actually, psychopaths who come out not for the fellowship but for the rush of trouble, people who rage inside, who think that the night has not been complete unless they’ve put somebody on their back, or seen the great gouts of blood pour out of a body and into the gutter of the street. 

The original sideshowers, after all, were young people who gathered with their friends in the city’s east side parking lots in order to avoid the violence in the clubs, the concerts, and the streets. 

Almost everybody in my neighborhood hates Oakland’s crime and violence and the awful sense of fear and insecurity that it drags in its wake. We know they individual perpetrators, even if we can’t always articulate the societal causes. And we would cooperate with the police, if the police would cooperate with us. 

But the police don’t view us as partners. 

Chief Word recognized the challenges, even if he could not meet them. In an interview with the Oakland Tribune on the criteria for how a new police chief-his successor-could be successful in Oakland, he says, “[They would] have to be creative and willing to work with other organizations, both public and private. [They would have to] win the support, trust and respect of the community and the officers and others in the department.” With respect to the trust of the community, certainly, that was not done. 

An undated report posted earlier this year by the Oakland Police Department on the website of the National Crime Prevention Council gives a clue as to why. In it, OPD announced that it was bringing down crime in Oakland in part by what it called “strategic community policing.” … “The city hired civilians,” the report explained, “to organize residents in crime prevention councils and neighborhood alert groups to help break down the walls that sometimes separate neighbors from each other and the police.” 

And that, perhaps, best states the problem. In my neighborhood, anyway, we don’t need to be organized. We just need to be recognized. Regardless of how much he may have accomplished and how decent a man he may be, Chief Word’s failure to bring his police officers to that simple understanding is why he failed.