Undercurrents: Jerry Brown Adds Zeros to Justify Operation

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 11, 2006

In their 1948 American classic book about growing up in Oakland in the early part of the last century, Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey wrote in Cheaper By The Dozen that their father once discovered one of the more fascinating elements of the human mind—people could pass by a black typewriter every day without stopping or even thinking about it, but a typewriter painted white simply could not be resisted. “For some reason, anyone who sees a white typewriter wants to type on it,” Frank Gilbreth told his children on the day he brought one home and set it on the dining room table. “Don’t ask me why. It’s psychology.” (For those born in the 80’s and beyond and so didn’t live in those times, typewriters—which preceded computers as the thing on which we did our writing—used to come in one color, black. Same with telephones.) 

While Jerry Brown may not know how to solve Oakland’s problems—or, at this point on his way out the door, even really care whether he does or not—the mayor certainly knows something about human psychology. Aside from white typewriters, humans seem to attach great, mystical value to numbers that end in zero, giving weight to programs that are named with such numbers far out of proportion to their actual demonstrated worth. 

And so Mr. Brown gave us most famously his 10K downtown development initiative, a campaign slogan that always appeared absent-mindedly in search of a policy to justify the importance the mayor wanted it to convey. Who knows what benefits 10,000 new residents were actually supposed to bring to Oakland? 10K had such a nice, authoritative ring to it, like it knew what it was doing, even if we didn’t. 

Now, in response to this year’s horrific violent crime wave in Oakland, Mr. Brown has fallen back on the familiar and well-tested formula, rolling out the anti-crime “Operation Ceasefire” that will target the top 100 offenders who Mr. Brown feels are causing a significant portion of the violent crime in the city. 

“Every cop in Oakland will know who these guys are," the Oakland Tribune quoted Mr. Brown as saying at the press conference announcing the new program. "These are the people who have been wreaking havoc on our neighborhoods." 

The one hundred figure is not just a rounded off approximation, but an actual list. Oakland police officials said at the press conference that they have already prepared the list of 100, with Bay City News (BCN) reporting that it is made up of “people who've already been convicted of various charges as well as others who are suspected of committing crimes but haven't yet been charged.”  

According to BCN, Deputy Police Chief Howard Jordan, the Operation Ceasefire coordinator, says that police will attempt to meet with the people on the 100 top offenders list to convince them to give up their lives of crime, and that "those who choose the criminal path will be subject to swift and severe punishment." 

One presumes that the people on the list of 100 who are suspected of crimes but not yet been charged, have not been charged because there is only that suspicion, and not enough probable cause to justify an arrest or proof beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. If that’s not true, then why haven’t they been arrested and charged, yet? And if there isn’t enough evidence against some of these individuals to bring charges in court, how, exactly, does the police department intend to enact its “punishments” as promised in Mr. Brown’s “Operation Ceasefire” program? (There were ways that used to be done in the old days, but the police department is supposed to be out of that business now, especially with Judge Thelton Henderson monitoring their actions.) 

Meanwhile, one interesting part of the “100 Most Unwanted Oaklanders” list was pointed out by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, who wrote this week that “by the time Oakland officials introduced on Thursday ‘Operation Ceasefire,’ … it was already out of date. … [The list of] 100 of the city’s worst criminal suspects … has already been reduced to 98. One of the people on the list was in the morgue by the time the plan was announced. The other was in custody.” 

This raises questions. Will two more names be added to the list to bring it back up to 100, so that the police department will always have a list of the “100 Most Unwanted” to be tracked down, tied up, or run off? Or will the numbers on the list gradually be whittled down to nothing, so that we know that the worst bad-asses are finally off our streets, and it’s safe to go outside again? That leads us to the further puzzlement: was the list padded with people who the police don’t think are so dangerous, or were some really dangerous people left off, just so the list could either make, or be kept at, the politically magic number of 100? 

And that leads us to another question, maybe the most important of the bunch. What makes “Operation Ceasefire” different from all of the other anti-crime measures that have been launched during the tenure of Jerry Brown in Oakland, and what are the mayor and the police department offering to show us that this new operation will be more successful than all of the anti-crime and anti-violence operations that preceded it? In fact, what happened to the other anti-crime/anti-violence operations? Are they still operating? Were they tossed out? What were the results, and what lessons were learned from their implementation, or lack of implementation? Any serious new effort to combat a problem, after all, ought to begin with an analysis and understanding of the previous efforts. 

In their article on “Operation Ceasefire,” San Francisco Chronicle political columnists Matier & Ross said that Mr. Brown had initiated 11 “crime-busting attacks” since taking office in 1999. Some of them went by so swiftly, they didn’t seem to last long enough to be given names. 

The one I remember most vividly is Operation Impact, launched in September of 2003 in the midst of an earlier wave of Oakland homicides. Writing in February of 2004, Harry Harris of the Oakland Tribune wrote that in “the project—which targets East Oakland—…[California Highway Patrol Officers] saturate main thoroughfares, including Bancroft Avenue and International, MacArthur and Foothill boulevards. The CHP presence allows police to direct more efforts at known hot spots for violence and drugs.” Mr. Harris called Operation Impact a “success,” noting that during the first four months of the operation, “serious crime like homicide, robbery and assault were down 6 percent from the same period in 2002.” Mr. Harris reported City Council Public Safety Chair Larry Reid as saying when the CHP officers were around, "things are peaceful. I want them here every day." 

As you know if you’ve been driving the nighttime streets in East Oakland since Operation Impact began, its focus was far different from that proposed in Operation Ceasefire. While Ceasefire targets the one hundred people who Mr. Brown says “have been wreaking havoc on our neighborhoods," Impact targeted the entire neighborhood, with Oakland police, CHP, and sometimes Alameda County sheriff’s deputies and park police conducting rolling traffic sweeps of major East Oakland throughways, stopping people at random, giving out tickets at will. During the first four months of its operation, Mr. Harris reported in early 2004, “the CHP arrested almost 600 people for various crimes, issued 1,564 traffic citations, towed 908 vehicles and seized six guns and 12 stolen cars.” 

When the homicide rate began to slow toward the end of 2004, however, Operation Impact did not end, the emphasis merely switching over to sideshow abatement. Eventually, that morphed into the Oakland police department’s present policy of “sideshow zones,” broad pockets of streets and neighborhoods from the San Leandro border to High Street in East Oakland where sideshows do not necessarily have to be taking place, but where police enforce stricter traffic rules than they do in the rest of the city, supposedly with the idea that people will see the police patrols and decide not to start a sideshow. 

Did Operation Impact succeed as glowingly as police and city officials were reporting in early 2004? Did its emphasis change because the murder rate went down, and should the city be returning to its “targeting the entire neighborhood” approach that it said was working so well? And if if worked, why is the city launching a new project with a completely different emphasis and approach? Or did Operation Impact not work, and should all of its manifestations—including the “sideshow zone law” now being enacted in East Oakland—be shut down in favor of this new approach? 

Serious questions, friends. How about some answers.