Grinage Talks About Oakland Public Safety

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:21:00 AM

With concerns rising in Oakland over the issues of crime and violence, the Daily Planet sat down with Rashidah Grinage, Director of People United For A Better Oakland (PUEBLO), to talk about public safety in the city. PUEBLO is a progressive, non-profit group that has been working, among other things, on police reforms in the city for the past two decades. It is one of the most credible voices on the left on police and public safety issues.  

DAILY PLANET: I wanted to start off with the police parcel tax that's going to be on the ballot in November, and your thoughts about that, and maybe even going back to the Safe Streets Initiative that preceded it. Are you going to support that? Are you not going to support that? 

RASHIDAH GRINAGE: Certainly as a voter I'm not going to vote for it. PUEBLO can't take positions on ballot initiatives. It's part of our non-profit status. We are not permitted by law to endorse any ballot initiative or candidate. So officially, PUEBLO has no position on the parcel tax. Personally, of course, our members can take any position they want as citizens. And I can tell that I personally will not be voting for the parcel tax. 

PLANET: Why not? 

GRINAGE: My understanding of the relationship between the number of police officers you have in a city and the amount of crime that you have in a city, there is no correlation. The assumption behind the parcel tax is the more police you have on the streets, the less violence you will have on the streets. Our own history here in Oakland proves that that is not the case. My Public Records Act request indicates that this year, as of July 15, we had 8 more homicides than we had as of July 15 last year, starting from January of each year, and we had 23 more officers on the street this year as of July 15 as compared to July 15 of last year. So in other words, we have 23 more officers and we have eight more homicides. Not fewer homicides. So for me, there's no conclusion possible other than the conclusion that more police officers does not reduce violence. Now it may be that more police do deter fewer auto thefts or fewer burglaries. Although as you know, we've had quite a string of restaurant holdups lately as well. So if it turns out that the more officers we have, the more crime and violence we have, then the idea of adding even more police is irrational, if that's what's intended to reduce these statistics. So it doesn't make sense, particularly in view of the fact that this initiative will be competing with other initiatives like the Kids First Initiative, which seek to add more funding to programs for children and youth. 

PLANET: And you've got the Oakland Unified quality teacher initiative. 

GRINAGE: I'm not too familiar with it. 

PLANET: There's some controversy over it, because the state administrator is supporting it and the board and the local superintendent are not. 

GRINAGE: Is it kind of like merit pay or something? 

PLANET: I'm not sure. It may be something to that effect. I haven't looked at it closely enough. But part of the problem is that what the local board is saying is look, we just came to the voters for money. The same thing you're talking about. There's a lot of initiatives on the ballot. This is just not the time. 

GRINAGE: Right. The other issue that we want to look at in terms of policing, getting back to police, is it is our view that a lot of what is needed is a redeployment. So for example, we have a very bloated internal affairs unit. They've got somewhere between 26 and 28 sworn officers in internal affairs that are paid huge, huge amounts of money, not even including overtime. Because a lot of them are experienced officers that are at the top of the pay scale. And it is our feeling that the review and investigation of citizen complaints should be done by civilians, not by sworn officers. So what we would like to see is at least 20, if not 23, of those officers who are currently sitting behind a desk, allegedly investigating citizen complaints of police abuse, we would like them to be deployed to the streets. And we would like to have much more cost-effective investigators who are civilians investigating citizen complaints. So in other words, its not an issue of just hiring more officers, it's redeploying the officers to the streets who are currently sitting behind desks doing a job that could be done much more objectively, professionally, and with more credibility by citizens than by sworn officers anyway. 

PLANET: The mayor has begun in the last year and a half to initiate some of those reforms, to fully staff all of the uniformed officers, the 803, including the 63 Measure Y officers, and they won the arbitration on civilianization, as well as the geographical reorganization. You've been studying those issues for a long time. I was wondering what your thoughts are. Are we moving in the right direction in terms of police reform? Are there other things that we ought to be doing? 

GRINAGE: I think it's a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have what I think has been a lot of progress in terms of the arbitration and decisions that have come down in favor of the city and in favor of the police chief having the authority to be able to manage his department rather than having the OPOA (Oakland Police Officers Association) determine who's going to go where and do what. So I think that those decisions that affirm the responsibility and authority of the chief are very important. I also think that the decision that came down in favor of the opportunity to hire civilians for some of the positions that don't require a sworn officer, again are very positive. Sworn officers cost a lot more than civilians, even civilians with expertise, because of the enormous salary, overtime, and benefits that officers have. Many of those jobs can, in fact, be done far more cost effectively if you have a civilian doing them than if you have a sworn officer doing them. So it makes sense to civilianize to the extent that you can. And again, we would say that a prime example is Internal Affairs. Most people don't trust investigations done by officers of other officers, for obvious reasons. And so what our survey found two years ago was that only one in 10 people filed a complaint at all when they had a negative experience with police. And a reason they gave was because they didn't think it would do any good. In other words, they had no faith that filing a complaint would actually gain anything worthwhile. Which is another way of saying they didn't trust police to investigate objectively and credibly. So our point is, you know what, citizens don't trust Internal Affairs, you've got all of these expensive, highly-paid people in Internal Affairs doing investigations that nobody believes in anyway…have them do other jobs. Have them do jobs that really impact public safety, and turn the investigations of citizen complaints over to citizens. To civilians. So that's one example where we believe even more can be done in the way of civilianizing positions and allowing sworn officers to be redeployed to solving and stopping crime, which is what their primary function is, to promote public safety. 

PLANET: But you said that was a mixed bag. All of the things that you mentioned are positive. 

GRINAGE: Well the mixed bag, part of it is that we've had a lot of police shootings lately. That is another downside of the rapid acceleration of police hiring. Having several academies at once, running these people through the academies to get them on line to meet these goals of hiring “x” number of officers by a certain date. So you're basically rushing these people through this thing, putting them out, giving them presumably some kind of field training. But then in some cases, you've got a rookie riding along with a rookie instead of a rookie riding along with an experienced officer. So you've got the blind leading the blind in some situations, and as a result, you've got an increase in police-involved shootings, which certainly cannot be considered a good thing, by any measure. And in fact, we've asked for and have received affirmation that the Citizens Police Review Board is going to have a public hearing on Nov. 13 on the OPD policy of deadly force, when it's appropriate to use deadly force. What the policies are. What the training is like. And all of the issues that revolve all of these police-involved shootings. So that's going to be on Nov. 13. And we're certainly going to encourage people to come down for that. 

PLANET: In the news lately, and the blogsphere as well, and in the NCPC's (Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council), there's been an ongoing debate over whether crime is going up or going down in Oakland. And the mayor has weighed in a couple of times. He says that it's a problem of perception. And I think (City Councilmember) Jean Quan has said the same thing. But you hear other people point to the same statistics and say no, it's really a problem. In your opinion, what's really happening, and what should be response be? 

GRINAGE: Well, statistics-anybody knows-can be manipulated. A lot of it has to do with how you categorize certain crimes, whether you put something in one column or another column, to say whether it went up or down. And you've got a lot of different kinds of crimes. So on the one hand, if you select-and this is true for the FBI Crime Reports which depends on self-reporting from these agencies-a lot of it has to do with the way that certain crimes are categorized in terms of which column they go into. So whether you put something in a burglary column or in a theft column, auto theft column, or how you categorize them, in some instances will tell you if something goes up or if something goes down. It may have no relevance to the average citizen. Because the same numbers can be manipulated to say a lot of different things. I think the perception certainly is that violent crime has gone up. Now it may be true that certain other types of crime have been reduced. Maybe auto thefts have gone down. Maybe certain lesser crimes, like certain misdemeanors, have gone down. But there could be a lot of reasons for that. Maybe they're no longer seeking certain kinds of misdemeanor arrests, because the DA's office is overwhelmed anyway and they know that nothing is going to stick anyway, so why arrest somebody because he's got a quarter of an ounce of pot on him? In other words, there can be a lot of reasons for why numbers of crimes decrease. It can simply be that police ignore a lot of what they see, because it's not worth pursuing. But I think clearly, the numbers in terms of homicides have gone up, unequivocally. There's no argument about that. Certainly the number of police-involved shootings have gone up. I think, based on what we appear to see on the news, the number of restaurant-involved break-ins and robberies has gone up. So, yeah, it may be that other kinds of crimes have gone down, but maybe citizens aren't as concerned about those because they're nonviolent. And maybe they're more concerned about the violent crimes, which apparently have gone up. 

PLANET: If we just talk about the homicides and the takeover robberies, which is what has gotten everybody's attention, what should the response of the city be immediately? Is that something that there's anything the city can do immediately about to address that situation, or is it a long-term problem that's going to go up and down? 

GRINAGE: I don't know everything that the city is doing. They may be doing things that haven't been publicized. But there are certainly things that have been done in cities like Los Angeles, and cities in New Jersey, for example, around gang violence. There have been creative strategies in terms of bringing gang members together to work out a truce. At least according to (Oakland Police) Chief (Wayne Tucker), this recent spate of violent shootings has to do with the fact that they took the Acorn Gang out of the picture, and now other gangs are vying to fill the vacuum. At least, that's the analysis that the Chief provided a few days ago. 

PLANET: It seems to me that anybody studying drug dealing and gangs-and we go back in history in Oakland even to the Felix Mitchell breakup, and there was just an explosion of violence after that, when people come in and take over turf. 

GRINAGE: Right. 

PLANET: Do you think that the City was prepared for the aftermath of the Acorn Gang breakup? 

GRINAGE: Good question. Theoretically, they should have been. Theoretically they should have known that when they do that kind of a comprehensive takedown that there's going to be this kind of tussling over who gets to inherit that turf. So one would have thought they should have been prepared for that eventuality. So again, it's not clear to me the extent to which there is proactive, creative crime fighting going on. A lot of the shootings are occurring in areas where it's well-known that there's drug activity. That leads you to wonder about the deployment of officers. If you know where the drug corners are, where the hot spots are, and you know that certain street corners or certain blocks have been the scene of previous shootings. Why wouldn't you be having officers deployed there, kind of round-the-clock? You could set up a battle station there, in a certain sense. So I'm not saying that they're not doing that. But the fact that these shootings recur in the same areas would suggest that there isn't a police presence there. Or if there is, it doesn't make any difference, in the sense that it doesn't seem to be preventing additional shootings. So again, I don't know the extent to which sophisticated analysis is being done. I don't know the extent to which what I would consider to be more creative and pro-active crime fighting is occurring. Again, in the sense of maybe get the mayor to try to sit down with some of the gang leaders. It's been done elsewhere.  

PLANET: Hasn't Mayor Dellums promised that on more than one occasion? 

GRINAGE: I think a lot of us were led to believe, that's the kind of mayor he would be. He would not be your typical, pro-forma mayor who would be simply reactive, but would he would bring more of a visionary, creative, progressive approach-holistic approach-to the issue of public safety. I'm not sure we've seen the evidence that that's what's happening. Again, I'm not in a position to say it's not happening. But if it is happening, we don't know about it. 

PLANET: What about bringing in groups like the Guardian Angels? They seem to come up every time we have a problem and then they disappear. What's your thoughts about that as a solution?  

GRINAGE: It's clearly not a solution. I think it's a bumper sticker kind of thing. It's something that politicians do when they're up against the wall and they need to be seen to be doing something. They need to at least be seen as trying to respond. That's an obvious way they can show the public that they're trying to respond, trying to provide some relief. But it's not a long-term solution, clearly, because by definition, these guys are like the Red Cross. They come when there's an emergency and when things settle down, they leave. The long-term solution has to be—we've all known for a very long time, and what the citizens voted for—is community policing.  

PLANET: In your opinion, what is that?  

GRINAGE: That's the $64,000 auestion.  

PLANET: The answer varies depending on who you're talking to.  

GRINAGE: Sure. And that's been true historically, from Day One. Despite all the trainings and all the everything and all the money that's gone into it, people have different understandings of what it means.  

PLANET: What do you think it should mean?  

GRINAGE: Community policing, in my view, is a way for the community to basically determine the ways in which their particular neighborhood—which is configured in an NCPC—can be safe, can promote safety. And so it should be pro-active rather than reactive. In other words, the neighbors who live in a community should be empowered to determine what the problems are in their neighborhood, what are the things that they've seen that make their community less safe than they would like, and to work with the police as well as other agencies. And that's the part I think that's still not working well. The police are really supposed to be a connector between the NCPC—the neighborhood—and all of the agencies that are implemented to offer social services. In other words, you might have problems that arise from kids that are unemployed, kids that should be in school and aren't, kids that are coming from families that are dysfunctional or substance abuse issues. In all of those cases there are agencies that we taxpayers paid for that offer services that are needed by these people that are identified in the NCPC or by that community as being problematic. So the idea is that you deal with their issues. You don't just arrest them for loitering, or just arrest them for whatever. Because that is not a solution. Because after they've been arrested, they will be released, and they will come back, and they will be in the same circumstances that they were when they were arrested. So the idea of community policing is actually to address the problems holistically and pro-actively. Not just by arresting people, but by determining what the needs are, what the problems are, and how they can actually be solved. And by involving all of the public agencies, whether city or county agencies. Social services. Counseling. Substance abuse. Job training. All of those kinds of things that will provide a long-term solution for those that are identified as bringing problems to the community.  

PLANET: What about the complaint that some have made that NCPCs don't fully represent the neighborhoods?  

GRINAGE: That's a problem that is historic, and we've said that from the beginning. That goes back to the whole rollout of community policing in the early 90's under (former Oakland police chief) Joe Samuels. We were at the table when the beat maps were drawn, when all the trainings were funded by Levi Strauss, who provided a lot of the grant money for the trainings and all the rest of that stuff. And from the beginning we identified that as an issue. When it is not done properly, it basically pits the haves against the have-nots within beats. That basically you've got homeowners that belong to the NCPCs. A lot of it has to do with their property and their property values, which are contingent on public safety. And those people, their interests become pitted against those that are often renters, are often lower on the socio-economic scale. And so you have the we's against the them's. And you have to some degree some vigilantism, and some racism, frankly. The NCPCs become empowered because of their close relationship with the police to basically pursue those in the community they feel are the problems. And again, the effort seems to be one of law enforcement and arrest as opposed to problem-solving. The officers are supposed to be problem-solving officers. PSO's is the acronym. And PSO doesn't equal “arrest.”  

PLANET: So how does that get done properly? How do the NCPCs get constituted properly?  

GRINAGE: A lot of it has to do with the responsibility of the city to do outreach to those within the community that typically don't show up for these meetings and to reframe the NCPCs so that they don't have that stigma of the upper class within a neighborhood, the homeowners, the older against the younger. They have to somehow figure out how to encourage and motivate the other portion of that community to become involved and to be empowered and go to those meetings and participate. That has not been successful.  

PLANET: What's PUEBLO's next project?  

GRINAGE: What we're really focusing on at the moment-along with continuing to do outreach to be able to maintain our database on officers that are allegedly engaged in misconduct, which is an ongoing project that we have and have had for fifteen years. But in addition, our focus is to civilianize the complaint process. We believe that part of the reason that officers are in many cases repeat offenders-like this rookie (Hector) Jiminez who was involved in these two police shootings-is that citizens underreport misconduct. Because they underreport, and they don't file complaints, neither the police department nor the City has a good handle on what these officers are doing on the street. Until they screw up. Big time. So our point of view is that more accountability means that the police department itself will have a better sense of what these officers are doing, and can apply corrective action, remedial action, to get these officers to improve their job performance. Before we have these kinds of shootings, and other forms of misconduct. So that it all goes back to citizens feeling empowered and feeling motivated to file complaints when they feel they've been mistreated. That allows the city and the community to hold these officers accountable. It allows the police department itself to do a better job of monitoring their officers, particularly their rookie officers, and again, to intervene, get them to take corrective action, before we end up with these egregious situations like the Riders, like these police-involved shootings. So our perspective is, it is important to get a system of accountability that the public can have confidence in. We believe that as long as these investigations are being done by Internal Affairs, people will not file complaints, because they will not feel it will make any difference, or their complaint will be taken seriously or investigated objectively. Therefore, we want to see the entire complaint process moved out of Internal Affairs, moved over to the Citizen Police Review Board, and the city do outreach to the communities and say, “Look, if you have a complaint against the police, we have citizens who will investigate your complaint, not police officers.”  

PLANET: Is it true that right now the only place you can file that complaint is at the Oakland Police Department?  

GRINAGE: No. People can file with the Citizen Police Review Board. But a lot of people don't even know it exists. They're not even given that information. But they can go to either place. The CPRB is located on the 11th floor of City Hall. Which is another thing we want changed. We want that down on the ground floor somewhere. Frankly, I'd like to see that where the Internal Affairs is right now, which is in a building next to City Hall, on the street level. Easy access. Nowhere near the police department. Since 1994, we have been trying to improve the Citizens Police Review Board. We've gotten a lot of substantive changes, like subpoena power, like independent investigators, like a counsel to the board that rules on evidence that can be permitted and runs the hearing and all of that. So we really have a good system in place. But a lot of people don't even know about it, and therefore they don't use it.  

PLANET: Does PUEBLO provide any service for people who don't know where to go, but can come here first?  

GRINAGE: We absolutely try to do outreach to the extent that we can to get people to come to us first. One reason is that we need the names of the officers involved in alleged misconduct so that we can incorporate that into our database. Once they have filed with the City of Oakland, as a result of the Copley ruling, we no longer have access to the identity of the officers. Which means we can't capture that information for our database. So we definitely want to encourage people to come to PUEBLO first and then we will facilitate them filing a complaint with the Citizens Police Review Board.  

PLANET: And what's the phone number for PUEBLO that they can call?  

GRINAGE: (510) 452-2010.