Sometime around 10 o’clock in the evening on June 25, 2005, an Oakland police officer pulled over a van near the corner of Havenscourt and Bancroft, in the heart of the city’s so-called “sideshow zone.” Telling the van’s African-American driver and two passengers that the stop was part of a “sideshow sweep” that night, the officer did a search of the car and its contents, including the backpacks of the two passengers. The officer then announced that he was citing the driver for a sideshow violation and having the van towed under Oakland’s sideshow abatement ordinance. Unwilling to wait for the tow truck, however, the officer eventually got into the van and drove off, leaving the driver and the two passengers standing on the sidewalk, trying to figure out how they were going to get home.
That in itself ought to have constituted a violation of several constitutional clauses, city ordinances, and common sense. The details make it even worse.
As we have spoken about in this column before, Oakland’s “sideshow zones” are loosely defined designated geographical areas in the East Oakland flatlands between High Street and the San Leandro border where Oakland police use “focused” or “increased” traffic enforcement in ways that are not used in other parts of the city. Officially called STOP (Special Traffic Offender Program), the practice was explained in a Jan. 10, 2006, OPD report presented to the Public Safety Committee of Oakland City Council:
“The STOP program was re-established in April 2005, to address public safety problems resulting from reckless driving and exhibitions of speed, as well as unlicensed and impaired motor vehicle operation,” the police department reported to the City Administrator and Councilmembers. “STOP derives funding from an increase in administrative release fees paid for vehicles towed under authority of the program … The program mandates that fees collected are returned to the Police Department to fund overtime STOP operations. … A majority of the funds will be used to offset overtime costs associated with the Department's effort to address the reckless driving, exhibitions of speed, unlicensed and impaired vehicle operations, such as the ‘Sideshow.’ The Department will also conduct STOP operations in other parts of the City where traffic safety is an issue.”
Under this East Oakland-based police enforcement program, a “sideshow”—even under the city’s loose definitions of the events—does not have to be taking place for cars to be cited under this program. Officers from the Special Operations Division Traffic Section make a sweep of the areas they call “sideshow zones” (places where they say sideshows are “likely” to take place) using a checklist to see if a driver can be cited for participating in “sideshow-related activities. Among these offenses are the playing of loud music. As we said, no actual sideshow has to be taking place. But under the STOP program, the cars can be towed at the officers’ discretion, with a mandatory $250 fee to get it returned from A&B Auto over on G Street.
A careful reading of the Jan. 10, 2006 report shows that the STOP program is operated on an overtime basis, with the overtime fees paid for by the fines levied from the tows. The more cars that are towed, therefore, the more money that is available for overtime. What officer would not want to make a little (more) overtime giving out traffic tickets? This is a prescription for abuse, and in the June 25, 2005 stop on Havenscourt and Bancroft, there was clearly abuse of the officer’s discretion.
The driver of the van, it turns out, was not anyone remotely resembling a sideshow participant. Instead, he was 41-year-old African-American Oakland resident Eugene Davis, coach of a local basketball team, who had been driving two of his players home from a game in Berkeley. The officer, Mr. Davis said, trailed him from Havenscourt and Foothill, finally stopping him at Havenscourt and Bancroft and telling him that his music was too loud, “which the officer said was an offense under Oakland’s sideshow ordinance.” After being left out on the street, Mr. Davis was able to get his van returned the next day, but only after paying a $250 release fee, $145 for the traffic ticket, and $126 to A&B Tow.
“Basically,” he said, “I got jacked for $500.”
“You don’t have to be doing anything, you just have to be there,” Mr. Davis explained. “It’s like martial law. People are afraid to come out.” Mr. Davis, a resident of the Laurel district in the Oakland foothills just north of the “sideshow zones,” said “I don’t come out in East Oakland any more, and that shouldn’t have to be.”
Mr. Davis decided to protest and publicize the incident, eventually getting the attention of Oakland’s PUEBLO organization, which monitors the Oakland Police Department and advocates for police reform. PUEBLO helped Mr. Davis get a meeting with OPD Chief Wayne Tucker, who agreed that a wrong had been done, and helped Mr. Davis get part of his money back, and publicly admitted at a March 4 PUEBLO police forum that “we have made a number of mistakes in the STOP program. Some people who are getting caught up in it should not have gotten caught up in it,” and promised a full review of the program itself.
One of the results of that review was an issuance of Special Order 8098 on police towing procedures by Chief Tucker in December 2005, specifically designed to address the issue of police leaving drivers and passengers out on the street after an auto tow. “When towing a vehicle,” the chief ordered, “an officer shall be mindful of the occupant(s)’s safety. The officer shall not expose such persons to an unreasonable risk of harm when determining whether to leave the vehicle’s occupant(s) at the area of the tow without a means of transportation. If the officer determines leaving the occupants in the area of the tow is unsafe, the officer shall assist the occupant(s) in relocating to a safe location…”
Is that new policy now being followed by the Oakland Police Department? You be the judge.
If the Oakland Tribune is to be taken at its word in a Sept. 11 article entitled “Two Shot During Sideshow In Oakland,” this is what happened to five Sacramento Latino teenagers in East Oakland early last Sunday morning. “The car they were in was towed by police shortly before 3 a.m. Sunday,” the Tribune reported, “after it was seen doing ‘doughnuts’ in a sideshow near Havenscourt and Foothill boulevards. Dozens of police were in the area writing tickets, towing cars and making arrests. After their car was towed, the five were walking west in the 5800 block of Foothill when they passed a parked sport utility vehicle with several men inside. Police said the women in the group were wearing Norteño attire, but the men were not. …[S]omeone inside the SUV asked them where they were from… [P]olice suspect the men in the SUV were either Sureños or Border Brothers, both deadly rivals of Norteños. When someone in the group responded ‘West Sac,’ someone inside the SUV got out and began shooting at them. Someone inside the SUV also fired at them, police said.”
Three of the Sacramento teenagers were hit with the spray of bullets. One of them, a 16-year-old from Elk Grove, was shot three times and was in critical condition in a local hospital as of the Tribune report. Because of their age, none of the teenagers were identified by the paper.
Significantly, the five Sacramento teenagers were cited at exactly the same location—Havenscourt and Bancroft—where Coach Eugene Davis’ van was originally followed by the Oakland police a year before.
We don’t know exactly what the Sacramento teenagers were doing before their car was towed by Oakland police. We only have the OPD statements to the Tribune as to what happened, so there is no way, yet, to make an independent judgment. But whatever it was they may have been doing, was our city made safer by dumping out-of-city teenagers out on Oakland streets at 3 in the morning? Did their offense—whatever it may have been—justify the danger they were put in by Oakland police? Did Oakland police actions lead directly to an Oakland shooting and, if it did, will any of the officers suffer consequences, and will city policy be actually changed? Did the dump-and-tow of the teenagers’ car directly violate Chief Tucker’s December 2005 Order? Or is the Tribune article wrong, and the circumstances different from what was reported?
We wait, patiently, for answers from Chief Tucker, the representatives of Oakland City Council, and Mayor Jerry Brown, wherever around the state he may be campaigning these days on his platform of law … and order(s).