Undercurrents: Then and Now: Chron Columnist’s Take On More Police for Oakland

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday November 02, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, the Metropolitan Greater Oakland (MGO) Democratic Club held a journalists’ forum on the first 200 days of the administration of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. 

During the discussion, one of the audience members asked San FranciscoChronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson to give his opinion on whether the local media as a whole was treating Mr. Dellums somewhat more harshly than we had his predecessor, Jerry Brown. 

Mr. Johnson, of course, has been the local journalist most consistently critical of Mr. Dellums. Most recently, the Chronicle columnist has taken off after the mayor on the crime and violence issue, most particularly over the number of police needed—or wanted—to curb Oakland’s crime problem. 

In an Oct. 5 column entitled “Robberies Shut Enterprise In West Oakland,” Mr. Johnson wrote, “When I interviewed Mayor Ron Dellums two weeks ago, he said he didn’t believe residents wanted a police force so large that it represented an oppressive presence on the streets of Oakland. His answer so intrigued me that I’ve asked dozens of people about it—citizens, businesspeople, friends, family members, everyone I could think of. So far, I’ve not found one person who agrees with him.” 

Mr. Johnson expanded on that theme a week later, writing in an Oct. 16 “It’s Time For Dellums to Get Real On Fighting Crime” column that “despite Oakland’s soaring crime rate and its sinking arrest rate, Mayor Ron Dellums is being dragged into a public debate about hiring more officers. Late last month, Dellums said he believed Oakland residents didn’t want a force larger than the 803 sworn officers authorized by a public bond measure … [but] it seems the public groundswell is causing Dellums to shift his position on this issue. What gets me most about our big-picture mayor is that he continually ignores the big picture. He talks on and on about tackling big ideas and empowering big visions while continually side-stepping Oakland’s biggest issue. Public safety is the big-picture issue, Mr. Mayor. Don’t you get it?” 

Mr. Johnson goes on to say that “Dellums’ lifelong liberal politics simply will not allow him to abandon the social remedies as part of any plan to address crime, and Oakland’s crime rate and increasingly anxious residents, are not going to let him ignore the other side of the equation. The point brought home again and again by residents who attended the weekend town hall meeting was that public safety and adequate staffing levels for the Police Department should be the mayor’s top priority.” 

And then, following the MGO meeting, in an Oct. 30 column entitled “All Across Oakland, Public Safety is the Issue, Mayor Dellums,” Mr. Johnson took up the bloody shirt once more, “In recent months, “ he writes, “as I’ve repeatedly beaten the drum for Mayor Ron Dellums to step up the fight on crime, hundreds of residents have sent me e-mailed notes with their tales of horror. … Public safety is the single-most-important item on Dellums’ to-do list—more important than any redevelopment project, social movement or existing political initiative. … Oakland residents and business owners have spoken clearly and eloquently so often—and in one voice—that the city’s leadership must act now.” 

But though he has been tough on Mr. Dellums, in his answer to the question at the MGO forum, Mr. Johnson denied that he had treated Mr. Brown differently from the way he is now treating the new mayor. “My job is to hold all politicians’ feet to the fire,” Mr. Johnson said, adding that hiring more police—over and above the currently-authorized 803—is the mayor’s most important public safety responsibility right now, even asking for a show of hands from the audience to prove that the community agreed with him. 

But did Mr. Johnson feel—or write—that way under similar circumstances during the Jerry Brown years? Well, not exactly. 

In 2002 and 2003, towards the end of Mr. Brown’s first term, Oakland experienced a sudden spike in violent crime. Most noticeable, Oakland murders jumped from an average in the mid-’80s between 1998 and 2001 to 113 in 2002 and 114 in 2003. Just like today, violent crime seemed to be the subject of the day in Oakland, and on everybody’s minds. 

During the period between January, 2002 and January, 2004, Mr. Johnson wrote 181 columns, eight of them specifically on the subject of general crime issues. 

I’d suggest you read the columns yourself for your own analysis. In my own analysis, while Mr. Johnson wrote about Oakland’s crime problem as a serious issue, calling 2002, for example, “a bloody year,” and saying flatly another time that “the killings on the streets of Oakland have got to stop,” the Chronicle’s East Bay columnist never put the blame for the problem on Mr. Brown’s shoulders as he is now doing on Mr. Dellums’. 

And sometimes, in fact, Mr. Johnson appeared to go overboard in gushiness in praising Mr. Brown for doing anything about crime, even things that didn’t protect the entire city, but only Mr. Brown’s image and his own neighborhood block. 

In the summer of 2003, when Mr. Brown was loudly proclaiming the fact that he was living in a condominium in the old Sears Building in the supposedly “tough” and “dangerous” uptown neighborhood at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 27th Street, Mr. Johnson wrote two columns in the space of a month (“Brown Has A Ringside Seat For Neighborhood Crime—Drive-by Shooting Near His Apartment” on Aug. 8 and “The Mayor and the Mean Street—Brown Tackling His New, Tough Neighborhood” on Aug. 25) giving Mr. Brown props for living in the hood and trying to clean up the area around his front door.  

Mr. Brown’s “leisurely nighttime walks with his dog Dharma have been a lot more adventurous than they’d ever been along the Oakland waterfront,” Mr. Johnson wrote in the Aug. 25 column, for example. “Since a shooting occurred outside a karaoke bar near his home a few weeks ago, the mayor has brought every city agency within his reach— from the police department to the housing agency to the building department—to investigate the causes of blight and crime.” It seems to have escaped Mr. Johnson’s attention, or his criticism, that a man who had been in public life for decades—including serving two terms as governor of California and running for President of the United States—should discover the need to “investigate the causes of blight and crime” only after he moved in a neighborhood that had a little of both. At the same time, Mr. Johnson also ignored the fact that in the real violence areas and killing fields of Oakland—the Dog Towns and the Sunnysides and the lower Fruitvales—these anti-crime, anti-violence issues were not being attacked by the Brown Administration with the same zeal that they were being attacked on Mr. Brown’s own doorstep. 

And Mr. Johnson appeared to have sympathies for Mr. Brown’s challenges as mayor of Oakland that he does not now appear to have for Mr. Dellums. In January 2003, on the occasion of Mr. Brown’s second inaugural, Mr. Johnson wrote that “Brown aimed high when he swept into office, promising to fix the intractable problems of the Oakland Unified School District and put a lid on criminal activity. Four years later, he’s discovered that it’s a lot easier said than done. All the euphemisms about the hands-on work of a big-city mayor have come to pass, and Brown finds himself without the financial resources, influence and authority he held as governor.” 

Not that Mr. Johnson always went easy on Mr. Brown, it’s just that he wasn’t hard on Mr. Brown in the area of crime and violence. In July 2003, for example, Mr. Johnson wrote that the “biggest worst decision” of the Brown Administration was the firing of City Administrator Robert Bobb, with no mention of crime prevention as one of Mr. Bobb’s priorities. 

But Mr. Johnson did have concerns about crime and violence in 2002 and 2003, even if he didn’t seem to think those should be Mr. Brown’s biggest concerns, except that Mr. Johnson’s solutions at the time of the Brown Administration appeared to be 180 degrees the opposite of what he is saying now during the Dellums administration. 

It was in a March 13, 2002 column “Renaissance Doesn’t Reach City’s Poor—Police Chief May Have Solution To End Killings” that Mr. Johnson gave his most comprehensive view on how he thought Oakland’s crime and violence problem should be addressed during the Jerry Brown years. 

We quote, at length. 

Writing of Mr. Brown’s first mayoral term, Mr. Johnson said that “nothing has changed in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where job opportunities are scarce, drugs are being sold from street corners, community spirit is waning and frustration is growing. And people are getting killed … Brown now wants a parcel tax to hire more police officers, an iron-fist approach to street crime and tighter controls on the city’s 11,000 parolees. That’s a rather predictable formula for tackling crime from a man who as California’s governor once suggested that the state launch its own satellites. What Oakland needs now is an idea as radical as that to stop the street killings before they drive the city’s murder rate higher, and its public image lower … For all that’s been said about a new, more efficient, creative local government, it’s [then] Police Chief Richard Word who is thinking outside the box this time. ‘I think the next step has to be reaching out directly to the youngsters we find on the corners who are selling drugs, not working and lacking educational skills,’ Word said … For his part, Brown has used the recent killing spree as a political soapbox to promote a parcel tax to hire more officers. … More police patrols will help law-abiding neighborhood residents for the time being, but … [I]f Brown wants to … engineer a turnaround that would be the envy of the nation, [he] will have to find a way to empower the poorest residents in a city where kids can look up at lavish hillside homes and dream—and sometimes scheme—on how to get there. “ 

Sounds like the same anti-violence programs Mr. Dellums is advocating today, the “social remedies” solution Mr. Johnson is now roundly criticizing the mayor for being unable to give up. 

Why, in Mr. Johnson’s view, were more police only a stopgap solution to Oakland’s crime problem under Jerry Brown, but now be-all and end-all under Ron Dellums? Hell if I know. You’ll have to ask Mr. Johnson yourself, about that.