Oakland Public Safety Plan Up for Consideration by Mayor

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylo
Tuesday November 20, 2007

With the impediments removed to the Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker’s plan for 12-hour shifts and dividing the city into three districts, community police advocates both inside and outside the Dellums administration are hoping that the way is now clear for the administration to move forward on a proposed Comprehensive Public Safety Plan as well. 

The plan, which was forwarded to Mayor Ron Dellums last summer, calls for the Dellums administration to implement community policing by fully staffing the city’s 57 problem-solving officer slots, bringing the number of civilian Neighborhood Services Coordinators to 30, organizing Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils (NCPCs) in all 57 beats and using them as the primary public safety contact within each beat, and layering the delivery of all of Oakland’s public-safety-oriented services through the already-existing Service Delivery System (SDS). 

Dellums has not made a final decision on the entire package, and some of the components are certain to be controversial. Advocates hope, however, that the plan will eventually unite all sides involved in Oakland’s currently raging public safety discussion and disputes under one programmatic umbrella. 

Public Safety Task Force co-convener Jason Victor Serinus said by telephone this week that moving to a comprehensive, integrated community policing plan is necessary “to deal with the roots of the crime problem in this city. I was surprised to learn when I started working with the task force that community policing is the law in Oakland, but it’s never been fully implemented.” Instead, Serinus said that the city is currently operating on what he called the “Keystone cops model. Meaning no disrespect to the police officers involved, someone reports a problem in East Oakland, so the city sends officers running out there to deal with it. And then someone says, ‘Holy shit! We’ve got a problem out in West Oakland,’ and the city turns around and sends the officers over into West Oakland. We’ve got officers constantly running back and forth, back and forth, putting blankets on the flames, but never getting at the root cause of the problems. That’s the reactive form of policing. The essence of community policing is the opposite; it’s proactive.” 

Serinus said that currently, Problem Solving Officers (PSOs) are not able to fully operate in their role as the centerpiece of the city’s community policing strategy. 

“They’re getting constantly pulled off their community policing activities to deal with immediate crime situations,” Serinus said. “They’re not able to take a long-range overarching look at the causes of crime. Therefore, the solution is to lock up more and more young black and brown people.” Serinus called that strategy similar to the federal and state model “which always needs to identify an enemy and then either lock up or kill the enemy, and then you ‘solve’ the problem.” 

A July report from the Community Policing task force on the Comprehensive Public Safety Plan released to Dellums says that Oakland’s community policing program “presently … sits in abeyance, stalled in labor negotiation sessions between city management and the Oakland Police Officers Association. A major issue is the proposed change from the present 4-day/10-hour work shift to a 3-day/12-hour shift.” 

Chief Tucker in July 2007 wrote, “twelve-hour shifts are an integral part of the plan to achieve true community policing.”  

Last week, that roadblock was lifted when an impartial arbitrator ruled that the Oakland Police Department could institute its shift from the 10-hour work shift to the 12-hour work shift.  

Tucker now plans to divide the city into three distinct police geographic zones, each of which is to be run by an individual commander, with officers restricted to the zone in which they are assigned. Under current police operations, police are constantly shifted from beat to beat, with no continuity or time for individual officers to understand the nuances of their individual areas. Tucker says that among other things, the 12-hour shift makes the geographically based staffing model possible. 

In a prepared release following the arbitrator’s decision, Dellums called the decision “a breakthrough for Oakland—we can finally move closer to true community policing.” 

But how much of the proposed Comprehensive Public Safety Plan will actually be adopted and eventually implemented remains to be seen. 

The plan envisions PSOs working full time in each of the city’s 57 beats to identify potential and actual public safety problems, both by walking the beats themselves on a daily basis and observing conditions and talking with individuals as they go along, and through regular meetings with the beat’s NCPC. 

The public safety proposal projects the NCPCs as the major community liaison portion of the program. Since only a handful of the city’s 57 beats have functioning NCPCs, the proposal envisions the PSOs organizing NCPCs in their beats where none currently exists. 

Both of those concepts may stir up controversy over the proposal. In the past, several of the NCPCs have been criticized in some community activist Oakland circles as being too close to the police and for promoting a “tough on criminals” approach to crime prevention, and having uniformed police officers actively organizing the NCPC in their beat can only be expected to increase that criticism. 

As the PSOs gather information on public safety problems in their beats, the Comprehensive Public Safety Plan proposal envisions them as bringing their concerns to Service Delivery System (SDS) units set up in each of the city’s six police service areas (PSAs). 

The six SDS units, currently operating under the city administrator’s office and consisting of roughly 10-12 police beats apiece, consist of service providers from all of the city’s public service agencies, including those responsible for such things as street lighting, community and economic development, and nuisance abatement. PSOs are expected to funnel their public service-related requests through these regular SDS meetings and then to make sure that those requests are actually implemented in their beats. 

Currently, the SDS units meet once a month. Advocates of the Comprehensive Public Safety Plan want those meetings to increase in frequency, possibly to as often as once per week, and want the meetings to include representatives of the various violence prevention organizations funded through Oakland’s Measure Y so that they become planning and sounding boards for all local violence prevention services in the city. 

Advocates also want the civilian Neighborhood Services Coordinators to play a more active role in both the communities and in the SDS meetings and follow-up. 

“That’s not happening now,” Serinus said. 

He described a recent situation in his own community to illustrate the current gaps in the system. 

“Two months ago, we had a young man killed near 27th Avenue,” Serinus said. “Young people held a vigil at the site for several days, but eventually the vigils began to drift into drinking and then roaming thought the community.” Serinus said that he understood how drinking became involved. “It’s a way to deal with the grieving process. For many people, it’s the only way. This entire city is grieving. We have suffered so many murders, and there’s no way to channel it.” 

But Serinus said that the vigil eventually got out of hand and broke into neighborhood disturbances, and after a window was broken and fights broke out, he and other neighbors had to call 911 for police to come in to disperse the gatherings. 

“But that wasn’t what was needed, it’s just what the situation made necessary,” Serinus said. “What was needed, initially, was the city to send out grief counselors for these young people to give them a way to channel their feelings. There’s so much that could have been done to help them, and the problem would not have not gotten out of hand.” 

Serinus said that if the proposed comprehensive community police plan were in effect, requests for counseling services—either from the city or from the Measure Y violence prevention organizations—could have immediately been coordinated through the area problem solving officer. 

“We need to have a common vision and a common strategy” in attacking public safety problems, Serinus said. “In addition, clear lines of communication are essential among all the agencies and organizations involved.”