Moving Forward on Oakland’s Violent Crime Problem

Friday December 07, 2007

For some months there has been intense, local speculation asking “what is Dellums doing?” Which is a good thing, all things considered. We ought to be attentive to the people we place in public office, keeping their activities under a constant monitor. It’s how the gears and inner workings of democracy are greased. 

Those who have been paying the closest attention will have noticed—despite all the constant hallooing that Mr. Dellums has been doing nothing in response to Oakland’s crime and violence problems (one local blogger has nicknamed him “Mayor McNothing”)—he has in fact, been doing something, the outlines of which are just beginning to become manifest.  

Mr. Dellums has been saying that he believes adopting a “community policing” makeover is the major step needed to attack crime and violence in Oakland. It is understandable why this position should attract little excitement in Oakland these days. “Community policing” has been Oakland police policy since City Council approved its adoption in 1996 (Resolution No. 72727, you can look it up), a time when Natalie Bayton, John Russo, Nate Miley, and Dezzie Woods-Jones were still on council, and Elihu Harris was still mayor. Both Jerry Brown—when he was mayor of Oakland—and Robert Bobb—when he was City Manager—were described as community policing advocates. Yet during those times, what was officially described as “community policing” went through radical swings in Oakland in purpose and approach, while crime and violence remained virtually consistent. 

At one of Mr. Dellums’ first press conferences, when he was announcing his then-new police initiatives, I asked him when he was going to provide us with his definition of “community policing.” Looking a bit imperially peeved—as only Mr. Dellums can—he replied that he had just done so in his statement. I told him that this, however, had been simply a one-liner definition, and given that many Oakland officials before him had also defined their police programs as “community policing,” I wondered if Mr. Dellums would provide us with a more detailed evaluation of what he meant by the word. He looked at one of his staff members, and told me he’d get back to me. 

It’s been a long time, but I’ve grown patient with age. 

What has become clear in recent weeks is that “community policing” advocates both inside and outside the Dellums Administration have been working on a comprehensive community policing plan that will be layered over the existing public service delivery system (SDS) put in place by Mr. Bobb. In addition, we now know that Mr. Dellums’ “community policing” model is a rejection of the complete carving out of “community policing” as the sole responsibility of “problem solving officers” or “community policing officers,” and a step towards former Police Chief Joseph Samuels’ slogan that “every officer is a community policing officer.” While Mr. Samuels may—or may not, depending upon who you listen to—have intended this as a way of doing away with “community policing” altogether, Mr. Dellums’ concept appears to be to create a parallel definition of “community policing” as having police officers assigned to defined communities rather than to the city as a whole, while simultaneously keeping the defined corps of one-to-each-beat problem-solving officers intact. It was probably difficult—in the beginning—to conceive of such a dual-track “community policing” policy, much less to begin the administrative and bureaucratic mechanics to put such a dual policy into place, one reason, I imagine, why there has been something of a delay in the release of a Dellums administration comprehensive crime and violence policy. 

We know, from Chief Wayne Tucker, that one of the steps in implementation will be to divide the city into three police divisions—North and West Oakland, East Oakland from the lake to High Street, and High Street to the San Leandro border—with patrol officers assigned to one of those divisions, and one, only. The chief’s ability to effect such a change was made possible by the city’s victory over the Oakland Police Officers Association union in the recent 24 hour shift arbitration, and we understand that the changeover will be completed effective the 19th of next month. 

Once, Willie McCovey went to bat at Dodger stadium against Don Drysdale in a tight Giants-Dodgers game in the years when that rivalry meant something in the National League pennant race. The L.A. crowd was up and roaring at every one of Drysdale’s monster pitches, the announcer booming encouragement and the scoreboard exploding with messages, until McCovey sent a fastball far out over the right field wall into the Southern California night, putting the Giants ahead late in the game. A dead silence went over the stadium. Over in the left-field stands, a lone Giants fan stood up, an SF cap on his head, looked around the crowd, put a finger to his lips, and said, “Shhhhhh.” 

We seem to be having one of those “shhhhhh” moments now, with something of a silence from Dellums critics following the arbitration ruling. One should not expect that to last long, but it is nice to get a break from the clamor, however short-lived it may be. We need to be having serious, community conversations over how to address the problem of crime and violence in Oakland, conversations that include all elements of the community. The constant shouts that Mr. Dellums is doing “nothing” on the crime and violence issue might stir up the Dellums critics, but it has also drowned out those who want to sit in the city’s common spaces and work out our differences. 

One of those policy discussions ought to be on what we might call—for want of a better term—former mayor Brown’s “youth crime and violence” policies. 

It is one of the more interesting aspects of current Oakland life, how little we talk of the legacies of Mr. Brown’s recently-passed administration. A product, one imagines, of the American worship of instantaneity. During the California Attorney General’s race as well as in the few weeks after Mr. Brown left Oakland City Hall, there was a lot of stabbing at the issue of the Brown Oakland Legacy, but this was more in the way of a laundry list of things done and not done than it was a real analysis. Little wonder. Mr. Brown was elected mayor of Oakland on a downtown development platform. The three major projects coming out of that platform—Forest City Uptown, Oak To Ninth, and the redevelopment of Jack London Square—have yet to be completed, a major portion not even started. It’s difficult to determine, in advance, the legacy of things that are yet unseen, a task made infinitely more difficult by the fact that a good portion of the records of the Brown administration were destroyed—by the Brown administration—on their way out the door. 

Still, there are some important areas of Mr. Brown’s work that are available for examination, particularly as it is the crops the former mayor left in our fields that we will have to eat off of for many years to come. One of those areas, as we have said, involves “youth crime and violence.” 

Consider, for example, Mr. Brown’s sideshow policy (please don’t wince and ask “Why is he still writing about sideshows? Hasn’t that long been over?”—actually, as I will show, in brief, Mr. Brown’s sideshow policy never went away, and continues to affect the city’s ongoing crime and violence policy as well as its social policy.) 

It’s instructive to remember—as so many fail to—that sideshows began as peaceful, non-intrusive, late-night auto gatherings in parking lots—not the streets and intersections—by young people of color seeking alternatives to violence-plagued “official” entertainment events. Oakland police chased the events out of the parking lots and into the streets—a policy no city official has ever publicly explained, to my knowledge, and which former Police Chief Richard Word later publicly admitted was a “mistake”—and the events gradually, over a period of a couple of years, changed into the more violent, thrill-seeking venues of recent years. 

It took years for Oakland to create an official definition of “sideshows”—that came, finally, with Mr. Brown’s arrest-the-sideshow-spectators ordinance—and that ambiguity allowed city and police officials to apply “sideshow crackdowns” to large sections of East Oakland. Oakland eventually adopted a special set of traffic enforcement policies which were supposed to be aimed at sideshows but, in fact, were enforced in what police officially called “sideshow zones.” These were broad areas of the flatlands and foothills stretching from High Street, roughly, to the San Leandro border. Within these “sideshow zones”—which police told us were areas where sideshows had happened in the past—police operated stepped-up scrutiny of vehicles driven by people deemed “likely” to participate in sideshows. In practice, that meant cars driven by young African-Americans and Latinos within the “sideshow zones” were subject to intense lookover for any possible violation of the Vehicle Code, moving or non-moving, not because those vehicles had been observed breaking the code, but because police—according to their own admission—wanted to alert the youngsters of the police presence and discourage them from breaking those codes (more specifically, creating a sideshow). There are some amongst us who characterize Oakland’s “sideshow zone” enforcement policies as unconstitutional in the most basic sense, textbook discrimination, as they target people not for what they have done, but because they look like other people who may have done something in the past. Still, the “sideshow zone” enforcement policy continues in Oakland, to this day. 

What is Oakland’s “sideshow zone” enforcement policy? How does it work, is it working to reduce crime and violence, as claimed, and, even if it has, is the price of our loss of constitutional rights too high? How does it help—or hinder—the administration’s new crime and violence policies? This is a public discussion—not a shouting match or a trading of accusations—but a public discussion that we have long needed to have, and that we cannot long continue to put aside. 

More, as we move forward.