UnderCurrents: Oakland’s Traffic Stop Crime Fighting Policy Continues

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM

From all over Oakland this winter and spring, there have been calls for a crackdown on the city’s crime and violence, with police being allowed to fill in the details, at their discretion, of how such crackdown will be carried out. 

Here in the Deep East flats of the city, we get to see the details firsthand. 

One afternoon a few days ago, in our neighborhood, we witnessed a car with four young African-Americans pulled over by two OPD officers in a single vehicle, apparently because the car they stopped had no date and registration stickers on the back license plate. The stickers, it turned out, were on the front plate. 

The officers did not approach the car as if they had run the plates and thought a theft of some kind had been committed, such as the stealing of a car or plates. If that had been the case, the general practice is for one of the officers to have hung back and observed from the rear and the side, while the other officer went up to the driver’s window, both of the officers putting their hands on their weapons. 

In this case, however, the two officers both went to the vehicle, one on the driver’s side, one on the passengers side. We could hear the officer on the passenger side ask, through the open window, if anyone in the vehicle was on probation or parole. Apparently one or all of them answered yes, because in a moment the four occupants were brought out of the vehicle, handcuffed, and searched. Two of the occupants were put in the police car, while two of them were made to sit down on the curb. 

Next, while one officer got on the radio, the other proceeded to search the car, tossing clothing, papers and items we were too far away to identify out onto the sidewalk and into the gutter. 

We fully expected that in a while a truck would come from A&B to tow the car away, and one or more of the car occupants would be taken away in the police vehicle. 

Instead, within a few minutes, the officers took the handcuffs off the occupants while telling them that they needed to reverse the placement of the vehicle license plates, or they would get stopped again. (Why the license plates were reversed in the first place I never found out, but apparently, from the officers’ ultimate actions in letting the car occupants go, there was nothing illegal involved, only inadvertence.) In a moment, in any event, it was over, the whole procedure taking probably fifteen to twenty minutes at the very least, and the officers drove away, while the car occupants were left to retrieve their belongings from the ground. 

How you view this incident probably depends entirely on what experiences and background you bring to the discussion. 

Many people will wonder—aloud and in blogs, probably—what was the big deal. They will say that the officers had probable cause to stop the car because of the lack of stickers on the tags (they couldn’t see the stickers on the front tags while they were following) and that, further, assuming that everyone in the car was on probation or parole, the officers were fully within their authority to temporarily detain those occupants while they determined if anything was amiss. Finally, when the officers apparently found out that there was no more violation than the transposed plates, they immediately allowed the occupants to go on their way. 

And some people in Oakland will rejoice at keeping parolees and probationers unsettled, applauding, as did the rancher Rufus Ryker in the movie Shane, the actions of a hired hand cowboy putting the run on the sodbusters. 

And in fact, the stop appears not be some random action by individual officers, but part of the strategy that Area One (North Oakland-West Oakland) Captain Anthony Toribio earlier this year famously called “showing the flag,” in which Oakland police officers use massive “routine” traffic stops to try to ferret out evidence of serious crimes. Mr. Toribio was talking about instituting the crime-fighting-by-traffic-stop strategy in the Dogtown section of West Oakland, but we have seen it instituted out here in the East Oakland flats since the old “Operation Impact” days of the Jerry Brown administration. The purpose of the policy is to use routine non-moving traffic stops on “suspicious” individuals—the “suspicious” being undefined on paper, but you are free to come up with your own criteria of how our police officers select the targets—then to be able to run warrant checks on the drivers and all individuals in the car, as well as to look for an excuse to be able to search both the occupants and the car—as happened in the license plate stop in my neighborhood described above—in the hope of coming up with something illegal. 

One wonders how all of this is being taken in and processed by the people who are actually stopped. For a violation that for most citizens would have warranted a simple instruction from the officers to correct an inadvertent mistake, they found themselves detained, publicly humiliated and embarrassed, and their belongings dumped out in the gutter. Will this experience lead them to become better citizens? Hard to think it will. 

If the purpose of OPD’s blanket traffic stop policy—blanketing only “certain” elements within the community is to get these “certain” individuals out of Oakland—either by harassing them so much that they figure it’s better just to move to Antioch or Bakersfield, or by keeping their lives so disrupted that they end up unable to hold down a regular job and turn back to crime, eventual arrest, and parole or probation violation that sends them back to Santa Rita or beyond—then by all means, the police department should continue this policy. One way or the other, it will accomplish that purpose. 

If, on the other hand, the City of Oakland is actually embarking on a policy of turning the formerly incarcerated away from the thug and criminal life and reintegrating them into Oakland as productive citiziens—as has been promised by Mayor Ron Dellums—then OPD’s crime-fighting-by-traffic-stop program is absolutely the wrong way to go. The burden is now on Mr. Dellums to investigate the practice, and to stop or modify the traffic stop policy where it is demonstrated that it is against his administrative goals, to point out that we are wrong in our understanding of the consequences of the policy, or to admit that he has no control over what Oakland police are doing in the streets of the Oakland flatland communities. But Mr. Dellums, whom I respect highly, cannot have it both ways in this situation. He cannot be known as both the liberator of South Africa from apartheid and the mayor who presided over apartheid-like police tactics in the city of his birth. 

Meanwhile, since we’re talking about Mr. Dellums and the police… 

Most of our longtime UnderCurrents readers—and readers of the San Francisco Chronicle—will remember the spirited and energetic campaign conducted in the last months of 2007 by my good friend, Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson, to convince Mr. Dellums to increase the number of police in Oakland above the authorized 803 patrol strength.  

In September, reporting on a meeting between him and Mr. Dellums, Mr. Johnson wrote: “Dellums says he has no plans to significantly increase the number of Oakland police officers, despite the reality that Oakland’s under-sized force of nearly 740 officers is roughly half the size of cities of comparable size. … On this point the mayor and I agreed to disagree, because I live in Oakland and believe we need a police force at least one-third larger than its current size.” 

Then, in an Oct. 16 column entitled “It’s Time For Dellums To Get Real On Fighting Crime,” Mr. Johnson applauded what he felt was Mr. Dellums’ reversal of that opposition. “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,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “But at a town hall meeting in North Oakland on Saturday, he changed that tune, describing the recruitment push as a rock-bottom minimum number of officers. And by the end of the meeting, Dellums was acquiescing to residents who called for a force as large as 1,000 officers, saying: ‘Let’s have a conversation about that.’ It seems the public groundswell is causing Dellums to shift his position on this issue.”  

(A careful reading of Mr. Dellums’ words will show that he never, actually, changed his position on going above the 803 police mark. Calling for a conversation is not the same thing as calling for a change. But that’s beside our present point.) 

Finally, in a Dec. 21 column appropriately entitled “Same Old Message To Oakland Mayor-Hire More Cops,” Mr. Johnson wrote that Mr. Dellums’ earlier resistance to increasing OPD strength above the currently-authorized 803 “turned out to be a tactical mistake, and hundreds of citizens contacted the mayor’s office to set him straight.” 

Well, a prominent East Bay writer has now informed us that, actually, it would have been a tactical mistake for Oakland to have drastically increased the Oakland police budget last year, as would have needed to be done if the City had heeded the call to increase the police strength above 803. And who was that prominent East Bay writer who came to that conclusion? The same one who earlier was loudly calling for that increase, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson. 

In a May 9 column about the City of Vallejo budget crisis entitled “Vallejo Leaders Should Have Seen Crisis Coming,” Mr. Johnson writes, in part, “the question you have to ask about the officially bankrupt city of Vallejo, and other California cities with similar financial profiles, is this: Didn’t you know something was wrong when you realized you were spending 75 cents of every dollar in the general fund on public safety costs?” 

“Vallejo’s finances,” Mr. Johnson goes on to explain, “already battered by years of trying to meet police and fire department payrolls and pension liability payments, fell under the weight of the housing crisis … And what’s particularly disconcerting is that many of the same factors that pushed Vallejo beyond the precipice of financial stability are at work in many other cities around the state, including Oakland … With a projected budget deficit of $6.7 million at the end of the fiscal year in June, city officials led by Mayor Ron Dellums have reined in some of the more downright ludicrous benefits offered to the Oakland Police Officers Association … The once-healthy property transfer tax revenue stream has dried up in Oakland—and city officials are projecting a $20 million drop in revenues because of the decline in the housing market. Add to that a citizens’ initiative to add another 300 police officers, without raising taxes to pay for them, and you have Vallejo all over again.” 

Without actually coming out and admitting it directly, Mr. Johnson appears to concede that he was wrong in calling for an increase Oakland police strength above 803, and Mr. Dellums was both prudent and right to resist those calls, not matter how politically popular they may have seemed, because such an increase would have probably busted Oakland’s budget and led us down the Vallejo path. 

That seems to be the only possible conclusion to Mr. Johnson’s abrupt turnaround. Or do y’all think I’m completely misinterpreting this?