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Police Official Says City Must Attack North Oakland Crime Problem

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday February 12, 2008

The captain of the newly formed Oakland Police Department Area One told North Oakland residents on Saturday that the rash of recent shootings in their community is the result of a turf war between the Ghost Town gang and the Acorn Gang of the Lower Bottom, and he intends to “plant the flag” in the Ghost Town section as an immediate step to abate the problem. 

Captain Anthony Toribio spoke to a packed Peralta Elementary School audience at Councilmember Jane Brunner’s regular community advisory committee meeting. The meeting was specifically set aside for a panel discussion on crime issues, but with several contested City Council races on the June ballot—including Brunner’s own District One—there were considerable political remarks as well. 

The meeting came at a time when an escalating series of burglaries, muggings, and a number of high-profile shootings and murders have propelled crime and violence into one of the top concerns of North Oakland residents. Several residents said they had been kept up into late hours the night before the meeting by gunfire that accompanied a homicide at 58th Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

Toribio, who was recently picked to head up one of the three city geographical districts set up in OPD Chief Wayne Tucker’s police reorganization plan, outlined a strategy that sounded very much like the anti-terrorist war strategies in Iraq or Afghanistan, saying that Oakland police have “abated a lot of problems” in neighborhoods where law enforcement resources can be marshaled and targeted, but after the police focus turned elsewhere, “the problems were left smoldering, and when we leave, they reignite. We need to figure out a plan to take and maintain [neighborhoods] block by block so that they are ultimately safe and free from violence. We need to do more to hold on to what we have.” 

The Ghost Town neighborhood sits along the West Oakland-North Oakland divide and straddles Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard roughly between 29th and 40th streets. Lower Bottom is in the heart of West Oakland surrounding the area’s old Seventh Street business district. 

Among the “plant the flag” strategies Toribio said his department has employed or will shortly employ are what he called “quality of life” sweeps of “hot spot areas” of Ghost Town, doing increased probation and parole searches for individuals convicted of robbery or violent crimes, conducting school truancy sweeps aimed at getting potential juvenile criminals off the street, setting up a mobile command post in the community, increasing the time for problem solving officers to walk their beats from four hours a week to 10 hours a week, and conducting traffic ticketing sweeps "to give the message that we are out there.” 

Meanwhile, Chief Tucker and two City Council candidates sparred over how many police should be hired to handle Oakland’s crime problems. 

Oakland Residents For Peaceful Neighborhoods co-founder Charles Pine, a candidate for the Council At Large seat, and neighborhood public safety activist Patrick McCullough, a candidate for the District One seat currently held by Brunner, both repeated assertions that Oakland needs “at least” 1,100 police officers, 300 more than the currently authorized 803. 

But Tucker called the 1,100 goal "unrealistic," saying that it would cost the city $60 million a year to authorize and hire that many new officers. "We would have to close parks and libraries to do so." 

And saying that Oakland already spends 60 percent of the $500 million non-restricted portion of its $1 billion city budget on police and fire services, City Administrator Deborah Edgerly said that the $60 million figure for 300 new officers would eat up the entire discretionary portion of that budget. 

But Tucker said that if Oakland wanted to maintain a constant police force of 803 officers actually on the payroll, the number of authorized officers would have to be increased. The chief said that this was because a new police academy class is only authorized when the department is down 20 officers from full authorization, and it takes 10 months from the time of such authorization to actually get a new group of officers out on the street. 

To maintain an actual force of 803, Tucker said that the city would need to authorize a force of 875. 

Tucker also said he had submitted an augmented police recruitment program proposal to the Oakland City Council designed to meet Mayor Ron Dellums’ recent pledge to have 803 officers hired by the end of 2008. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the police recruitment plan--including a request to use $7.7 million in Oakland Measure Y Violence Prevention funds to finance the recruitment effort--at its Feb. 19 evening session. 

Meanwhile, Pine’s and McCullough’s 300 police increase proposal was popular with at least some of the meeting participants, and McCullough himself received a smattering of applause from the audience when he got up to speak in the public comment section of the meeting, the only speaker to get such a reception. 

And at least two residents—besides McCullough—said the area’s crime problem could be solved by first getting rid of Brunner from the council. 

But in a rare speech at the beginning of the community advisory meeting—where she usually lets residents and city representatives and other officials do most of the talking—Brunner defended her record on public safety, saying that it was she who originally discovered the post-Measure Y vacancy in the city’s police force ("buried in one of the chief’s reports”) and then requested $2 million to fund the city’s current police recruiting effort.  

She also said that she worked to get the police department’s juvenile desk reinstated after the department had shut down it down for a year (the desk concentrates on sorting out which juvenile accused offenders need jail time and which need other intervention strategies), and last year was one of the leaders in the City Council request for six more police investigators. 

But Brunner said that councilmembers’ hands are tied by the city’s non-interference clause from actually moving around police resources as constituent’s might wish. “I can’t direct police what to do," she said. "I can only ask.” 

And Brunner sided with several residents who have criticized police lack of response, revealing that the morning of the community meeting her own car had gotten broken into, and she hadn’t been satisfied with how it was handled.  

“I called the non-emergency number and wanted to give a report, but the operator told me that I couldn’t because the investigators only work from Monday through Wednesday," Brunner said. "They wanted me to go on the department’s website to file a report.”  

Noting that she didn’t identify herself as a councilmember, she said it made her wonder how many citizens were discouraged from filing police reports because investigators were only available to take them three days a week.