Column: Undercurrents: Oakland Police Catch Citizens in Criminal Sweeps

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 17, 2007

Three years ago, I wrote a column about a friend of mine, Frank, whose family has been living across from mine in the same flatlands neighborhood for more than 30 years. With my family having moved here before the U.S. entry into World War II, our two families are, by far, the longest continuous residents on this block, by far. 

That doesn’t help with Oakland police, however, many of whom are new to Oakland, and know little about our neighborhood. The 2004 column was about Frank and I sitting out in front of his house one unseasonably warm evening, swapping stories, when a police officer rolled up in his car, shining his spotlight into our eyes for no other reason we could fathom than we were two middle-aged Black Men sitting on an East Oakland sidewalk. Highly suspicious, of course, and certainly cause for investigation. 

It took three years, but now there is an addendum. 

Frank has since passed away and last week, on his birthday, his family decided to remember him with a birthday celebration at the family house. They cooked barbecue and greens and potato salad and all the things you’d expect from an African-American family that settled in Oakland after migrating out from the South, and while old school music sounded out from a portable cd player, the backyard and adjoining sidewalk filled up with several generations of family and neighbors and old friends, from 70-year-olds to what the Southern folk used to call “arm babies,” children so young you have to carry them around in your arm. 

About midway through the party, a police helicopter started circling overhead. 

It’s nothing unusual to have a police helicopter circling overhead in our neighborhood. This is the flats of deep East Oakland, after all, and the police are often up there, looking for somebody on the ground. But instead of moving away the police helicopter stayed in a circle pattern directly above Frank’s mother’s house, dropping lower and lower in the sky, until, finally, you could look up and see the operator looking down at us. 

The talking and the laughing at the party gradually slowed and fell to a stop, as people began to look up at the helicopter, and realize what was going on. 

“What’s up with him?” somebody asked. 

Nobody at the party could answer, because nobody knew. A few people made nervous jokes. A few others said some things that weren’t jokes. 

This must have gone on about fifteen minutes or so, the helicopter slowly circling over my neighbor’s backyard, watching the scene below. Finally, two police cars rolled slowly down the street from a couple a blocks away and approached the house. They stopped at the intersection and sat there for a long moment, the two police officers watching us through the windshields, not getting out of their cars. Then, either satisfied that what or who they were looking for wasn’t there, or instructed from a radio directive, they suddenly made slow u-turns, and left. Shortly afterwards, the helicopter broke off its pattern over the house, and left as well. 

What they were looking for? A drug dealer fleeing a warrant? A car thief or someone who had just robbed a liquor store and was trying to escape through our area? Was it something so dangerous we should have gotten the youngsters and the elders into the house for a while? We’ll never know, since the Oakland police we come in contact with out here in the Deep East rarely give the impression that they believe it is us they are protecting the neighborhood for.  

Meanwhile, most of the rhetoric flowing on all sides of Oakland’s violent crime issue comes to a confluence on the point that police can’t handle the crime situation on their own, and Oakland violence won’t be abated until we figure out a way to develop cooperation between the community and the police. 

And that is why I think the request by the office of Mayor Ron Dellums to bring in California Highway Patrol officers to supplement OPD—and the recent announcement by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to answer that request—has the potential of making Oakland’s violent crime situation worse in the long term, rather than better. 

I think I understand and appreciate the difficult position the mayor, Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker, and the Oakland City Council find themselves in with the OPD manpower situation. Putting more police officers on the street is one important step towards getting a handle on Oakland’s violent crime. But getting more police officers on the street has proven to be easier said than done, even when the money is available. 

In 2004 Oakland voters passed the Measure Y violence prevention bond that in part allowed for the hiring of new officers, but a Police Reform White Paper released by Tucker, Dellums, and Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan last month says that “despite an aggressive recruitment program and an expedited hiring process,” the department is still 70 officers short of authorized capacity. It’s been hard, in fact, to miss the stepped-up OPD recruiting effort in the last couple of years; it comprises, among other things, ads, billboards, and a heightened OPD recruiting presence at job fairs and other public events. But the Police Reform White Paper says that new hirings have been offset by an increase in retirements; in addition, we know that the Oakland Police Officers Association has been blocking the chief’s proposal to reorganize the department’s time shifts, a reorganization the chief says would put more of the existing officers on the force out on street patrol in any given time. 

There has been an intense, ongoing, internal struggle over these issues since the Dellums Administration took office and the Oakland-OPOA police union contracts expired, but it is the political time that has now expired, with the assassination of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey earlier this month. The national uproar over Mr. Bailey’s murder was almost certainly what triggered the timing of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s announcement to answer Mr. Dellums’ request to send in the Highway Patrol. 

In the short-run, in theory, the added police manpower is supposed to free Oakland police officers to flood high-crime areas and conduct more investigations. And in the short run—like the surge in Iraq—that might cause a temporary dip in Oakland’s violent crime. But what about the long-run? 

To understand that, my friends, you must read, carefully, from the August 8 Oakland Tribune article “Governor Sends Anti-Gang Task Force to Oakland” to see what the Highway Patrol officers will be doing in Oakland, and where they will be doing it.  

“CHP officers will be made available to assist in high-traffic areas such as the International Boulevard corridor, according to Roland Holmgren, Oakland Police Department public information officer,” the Tribune article reads. “They will operate in non-patrol functions, according to Karen Stevenson, director of communications for Mayor Ron Dellums. … The CHP officers, who will be paid out of the department’s existing overtime funds, will join Oakland police and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies in cruising gang-plagued areas. Providing additional traffic enforcement, we come across folks who have guns (or) drugs in their cars and we assist by taking those folks off the street, said CHP spokeswoman Fran Calder.” 

The Highway Patrol officers, in other words, will assist in law enforcement by “traffic enforcement” along International Boulevard and other “gang-plagued” and “high traffic” areas—that is, stopping drivers for traffic violations—and arresting those who are found to have guns or drugs in their cars. 

Where have we seen this before? 

In fact, this is what the California Highway Patrol has been conducting along International Boulevard and other areas inside the Oakland flatlands for several years now, twice in the massive Operation Impact projects that involved several law enforcement agencies, and again, from time to time since then, in smaller actions that we have written about in this column. 

In these operations, the California Highway Patrol conduct intense traffic patrols, stopping cars for minor, non-moving violations (expired tags, etc.) that normally get overlooked while police are tied up with more serious matters. And, yes, a lot of legitimate stops and ticketing will take place, and some middle-age, middle-class white citizens will get tickets for violations that they otherwise will get away with. But because the purpose of the Highway Patrol Oakland operations is not merely to give out tickets, but to uncover cars with drugs or guns inside, the patrols are concentrating on cars driven by the people the Highway Patrol officers think will most likely have such things: young African Americans and Latinos. Doesn’t take much imagination to figure that one out. 

Most of the young African Americans and Latinos driving Oakland streets are not breaking the law, and are not carrying drugs or guns, and so aside from some fix-it tickets and a car tow now and then, along with some general embarrassment and minor harassment, most of them are going to be stopped by the CHP and let go. Some may think that this is a case of no-harm, no-foul. But aside from making it harder for law-abiding young African Americans and Latinos to easily make their way across a city that is already far too difficult for them to traverse, these are the same young people who the city is counting on to cooperate with the police in anti-violence efforts, and even to join the police department themselves. Is indiscriminately—or discriminantly, actually—stopping these young people of color going to make them more amenable to cooperating with the police, or less? 

Although I understand the political necessity of doing something about Oakland’s violent crime situation in the short run, the doing of this particular something, I fear, is going to make the problem more difficult to solve. Out here in the Deep East flats, we’re already having a problem with Oakland police officers’ inability to differentiate between the people they are protecting and the people they are protecting us from. The California Highway Patrol officers doing traffic patrol on Oakland streets have been, and, I’m afraid, are going to be, worse.