Column: UnderCurrents: Oakland Postpones Putting More Cops on the Streets, By: J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Friday March 17, 2006

In journalism, we are taught to look for social and political faultlines, the spots were the various forces of our society rub against each other, and sometimes collide. Usually, these are only tiny cracks in the social fabric that are barely visible, even to the trained eye. But sometimes they are a mile wide and if you lean over and peer inside, you can actually see what’s really going on. You have to look quickly, however. These things close up fast and even before they do, there’s folks running around with their smoke-blowing machines, trying to make you believe that what you are seeing is not actually what you are seeing. 

So it is, friends, with the struggle over Chief Wayne Tucker’s redeployment of the Oakland Police Department. 

If you read the Oakland Tribune on Wednesday morning, you would have been left with the impression that the City of Oakland was escalating its pressure against the powerful Oakland Police Officers Association to come to an agreement with Chief Tucker over the plan. That’s because the Tribune’s headline read: “City Puts Heat On Cop Union.” 

Really? To which part of the city was the Tribune referring, one wonders. Certainly not City Council. And definitely not the office of Mayor Jerry Brown. 

A brief recap, to bring you up to speed on this, in case you missed all the drama. 

Two weeks ago, in the midst of complaints by Oakland citizens that the police presence on the streets is dwindling while violent crime is exploding, Councilmember Desley Brooks revealed that the Oakland police chief had a plan to immediately triple the number of patrol officers at peak crime times, at no extra cost to the city. 

This would seem to solve the immediate police services crisis, except that under the current contract with the police union, the chief cannot implement the plan without the agreement of the OPOA. So last week, City Council gave the chief and the union a one-week deadline to come up with an agreement, voting unanimously to consider declaring a state of emergency at a special council meeting this week if no agreement was reached. (Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and Public Safety Chair Larry Reid were not present at last week’s meeting.) Under the terms of that proposed state of emergency, no agreement with the union would be then necessary to implement the chief’s plan. 

So what has happened since then? 

First, let us look at the leadership role of Mayor Jerry Brown in what everybody agrees is a public safety crisis (Mr. Brown, you may remember, is running for California attorney general on a platform of his leadership on public safety issues). According to Wednesday’s Tribune article, “Mayor Jerry Brown declined to take a position on the state of emergency, deferring to Tucker.” Declined to take a position? As far as I can tell—and I’ve been following all the papers on this every day—it doesn’t appear as if Mr. Brown has taken a public position on Chief Tucker’s redeployment plan, either. 

Meanwhile, the chief and the union apparently reached an impasse on Monday, unable to reach an agreement. That set the stage for the City Council to declare a state of emergency at Tuesday’s special council meeting. 

Council, instead, declined. 

According to the Tribune, Public Safety Chair Larry Reid, who represents one of the East Oakland districts hardest hit by the violent crime wave, said that “a state of emergency declaration would send a message across the nation that Oakland is not a safe place to live, work and raise their children. It would be a black eye for Oakland.” The San Francisco Chronicle noted that Councilmember Jane Brunner said the chief and the union were “close” to an agreement, adding that “if someone has a house on the market, if we’re in a state of emergency, is someone going to buy it?” The Tribune also noted that Brunner “warned her colleagues that it would hurt the city’s position in the coming contract renewal negotiations to take a hard line against the union.” “We could win the battle and lose the war,” the Tribune quoted Brunner as saying.  

Perhaps. Perhaps not. That’s a subject for another discussion. But that leads us back to the question, why should the police be opposed to Chief’ Tucker’s redeployment plan in the first place? 

Currently, Oakland police operate on regular, eight-hour shifts, with an equal number of officers on each shift. That leaves deployment holes at shift change times when one group of officers is coming off the street, and another is going on. One of these “shift holes” is at midnight, a time when crime in the city is going up. Another problem with the current police deployment plan is that it puts the same number of officers on the street at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon as it does at 3 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning, even though it’s obvious that more police officers are needed in the early morning hours because, after all, that’s when more crime takes place. 

Police often work longer than these regular eight-hour shifts when needed, of course. But when they do, we have to pay them at the overtime rate, which costs the city in the millions every year. 

Under Chief Tucker’s plan, the officers would work in overlapping shifts. Some would work eight hours a day for five days, some 10 hours for four days, some 12 hours for three days. 

Again, why is that a problem to the police? It’s difficult to say, because we’re getting conflicting reports. 

On Monday, in a story reporting that the chief-union talks were stalled, the Chronicle said that “the union’s biggest concern with Chief Tucker’s plan is the disruptive impact it would have on the officers’ private lives, and on the morale of the force.” That seemed to say that the union objection to the plan was on principle. 

But the Wednesday Tribune article said that the union’s objection, in part, at least, was not on principle, but on numbers. The Tribune said that Chief Tucker’s plan would put 84 officers on the street at peak crime times, up from the present 35. The Tribune said that the police union wants the deployment plan adjusted to only have 64 officers at peak crime times, and that Chief Tucker since reduced his proposed number in his plan to 72. 

So is the police union saying that it’s okay to disrupt the private lives of 64 officers, but the disrupting the lives of the remaining eight (the difference between the chief’s 72 and the union’s 64) is too much for them to bear? That seems too ridiculous to be the real reason. 

In her original announcement about the chief’s deployment plan, Councilmember Brooks charged that the union was holding up the plan because the plan would do away with the lucrative overtime pay (on the theory that the police union doesn’t mind disrupting police officers’ private lives so long as we pay the officers time and a half for the service). Ms. Brooks also said at the time that Mayor Brown and Council President Ignacio De La Fuente were holding up implementation of the chief’s plan because they don’t want to piss off the police union, whose endorsement Mr. Brown and Mr. De La Fuente need in their campaigns for California attorney general and Oakland Mayor. Neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. De La Fuente have responded to that charge, though they still have the opportunity to do so, if they’d like. 

“We have to take back the responsibility to manage our Police Department,” the Tribune reported Mr. De La Fuente as saying at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. It was not clear if he meant taking responsibility from the union and giving it to the chief, or putting that responsibility into the hands of the City Council. 

In any event, Mr. De La Fuente then voted with four colleagues (Councilmembers Jane Brunner, Henry Chang, Jean Kerningham, and Larry Reid) in giving the talks between the chief and the union one more week, which seemed to indicate that Mr. De La Fuente was not quite ready to make that responsibility change just yet. 

Watch carefully as this moves forward, friends. Before this is over, all of this ground may shift again, and cover up all trace of what has already happened.