Solutions to Oakland’s Crime and Violence

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday January 11, 2008

It is perfectly understandable why many citizens in Oakland have not waited to see if the pending Oakland police reorganization makes any changes in the problems of violence and crime in the city. Instead--almost as if the city’s police arbitration victory never happened and Chief Tucker’s reorganization plans were never announced--there have been continued loud cries from many neighborhoods that something must be done about the crime problem, including hiring more police. 

The first reason, I believe, that there is little patience for Mr. Dellums’ and Mr. Tucker’s police reorganization reforms to kick in is that we are far too used to having politicians and leaders offer quick solutions to complex problems, usually some piece of new legislation or regulation that gets the leader a lot of headlines and does little else. We get a lot of that in Oakland. The “solution” that comes readily to mind is when former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown--when he needed to buck up his law-and-order credentials for his run for California Attorney General--pushed an “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance through Oakland City Council. Whatever happened to that ordinance? Was it needed? Was it used? After all the state publicity Mr. Brown garnered from its passage, it has vanished from the public view. 

But the second reason many citizens don’t have a lot of confidence about the police reorganization is the way in which the reorganization made it into the public eye. 

When he originally announced the reorganization, Chief Tucker said he was proposing dividing the city into three districts--with patrol officers assigned to one district only with a single captain and command structure in each--with the catchword description of “geographical accountability.” What that meant, Mr. Tucker explained, was to have police officers and their commanders in closer touch with the individual communities and neighborhoods they were patrolling, rather than the current practice of having police generally roll around to any area across the entire city where trouble is reported. This would be a real step, Mr. Tucker went on to say, toward instituting “community policing” in Oakland. 

But the “community policing” and “geographical accountability” aspects of the plan were not the parts that got the most publicity when the chief’s proposal got closer to actual implementation. 

Instead, the Oakland Police Officers Association objected to the 12 hour shift portion of the proposal. That’s what went to arbitration and, when the arbitrator ruled against the OPOA, it is the 12 hour day that became the symbol of the reorganization, overshadowing everything else. 

Because of that publicity, it is difficult, now, to recall that Mr. Tucker always maintained that his goal was dividing the city up into three sections, and that he wanted to institute the 12 hour shifts only because it was impossible to do the division any other way. The 12 hour shifts, in other words, were only the means to establishing the chief’s ultimate goal, police and their commanders responsible for smaller geographical districts, so that they could become more familiar with those districts and the people and problems in them, and more accountable to the citizens in those districts. 

But because of the publicity over the police-city arbitration, much of the press and the public got it backwards, thinking that the purpose of the reorganization was to establish the 12 hour shifts. Thus, while a Kelly Rayburn article in the November 27, 2007 Tribune explained that the plan’s main thrust was the division of the city into three districts, the article’s headline itself read “Oakland mayor, police unveil 12-hour shift plan to curb violence.” 

Under the circumstances, it is understandable why the some citizens are either not generally willing to wait to give the plan a chance or do not think the reorganization is going to be that big a deal. It was revealed during the arbitration that many Oakland police officers were already doing 12 hour shifts and more, padding their regular 10 hour shifts with overtime. If the chief’s plan was simply to have police working the same number of hours on regular pay that they are currently working on overtime pay, the plan would be a mere reshuffling of the same number of cards in the same deck, with, therefore, little or no chance to curb crime in Oakland. 

I think it is more than that. But I also think it is going to take some time for Mr. Tucker’s reforms to kick in, and to see what kind of effect they have on the average citizen’s contact with the police. 

The calls for more police--above the currently-authorized 803--are going to continue to resonate throughout many parts of Oakland, in no small part because it is such a simple-slogan solution that is easy for people to grasp. Citizens want enough of a police presence where they live and work and shop to discourage criminal activity. When they call the police department--either the emergency or non-emergency number--they want a patrol officer to respond in a short amount of time. If they have been the victim of a crime, they want enough police resources put in for that crime to be solved, and the perpetrators arrested. The call for “more police” seems to meet those concerns, and so we will probably hear it in one or more of the Oakland City Council races scheduled for this June. 

Popular as the idea of “more police” is in some Oakland quarters, however, as I’ve written before, I can see little chance of implementation in the foreseeable future. Nowhere have I read any of the advocates identifying what portion of Oakland’s budget they would cut--what services they would trim or end, what employees they would fire--in order to free up the money to hire the new police. And given the suspicions generated by the city’s failure to hire the full complement of 803 police officers authorized by Measure Y, it is difficult to envision anyone in this climate being able to muster the two-thirds vote in Oakland necessary to pass a bond measure to fund the two to three hundred new police they are advocating for. But stranger things have happened. 

Meanwhile, I don’t think the Dellums Administration should do nothing else on the crime and violence front until the police reorganization reforms take hold long enough to be evaluated. The mayor’s staff is said to be working on a comprehensive public safety plan designed to integrate city and police resources to respond to crime and violence when it happens, and to begin eliminating its causes before it happens. The mayor alluded to that at last year’s West Oakland Town Hall meeting when he said that the scattered approach of small city funding to a large number of Measure Y violence prevention groups needed to be consolidated into an integrated, anti-violence strategy. Since then, we have heard little about that effort. But perhaps, with the mayor’s State of the City address coming up next week, we will hear more. 

While all of this is going on, for myself, I wish that the mayor would revisit one of the promises he made during the mayoral campaign of 2006. During that campaign, Mr. Dellums often expressed his willingness to sit down and meet with the “shot callers” in Oakland-gang leaders, essentially to see if some method could be worked out to lower the level of violence in the city. 

There are a number of such efforts already going on throughout the state. Before he was executed by the state of California, former Crips founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams had been working on such truces with Crips gang members from his cell on San Quentin’s Death Row. Following Williams’ death, Richmond community activist Barbara Becnel has set up the Stanley “Tookie” Williams Legacy Network (http://www.stwlegacy.net/) to continue that work, and last month, at a Contra Costa College showing of a new documentary on Williams, Becnel announced that the organization was sending several Richmond street leaders to Compton to meet with former Crips leaders to see how those anti-violence efforts were organized. Oakland should be joining and coordinating with those efforts. 

There are few leaders who have the national stature on progressive and civil rights issues of Ron Dellums, and few who could command the attention and respect of the “shot callers” as Mr. Dellums can. An Oakland anti-violence summit meeting, held with the people who can actually have some influence with those who are committing that violence, would be a good use of the mayor’s enormous talents and, if it succeeded even to a small degree in lowering the temperature in the streets, a tremendous step forward in the city. 

There are no quick fixes to the twin problems of crime and violence in Oakland. But if we take the time to think about them, and talk about them, and work on them, there are solutions.