UnderCurrents: Yard Dog Journalism and Mayor Dellums

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:02:00 PM

We’ve talked before about the phenomenon of what we call “yard-dog journalism,” that practice of all the dogs (or journalists, or columnists, or newspapers) on the block taking up the howling after someone walks by on the street, even though that person has done nothing peculiar, and may have passed that exact same way with no response many times before. But this time, after one of the dogs starts howling, all the others join in the clamor. Ask the last one exactly what triggered his barking this time and, if he could talk, he’d tell you “Damned if I know. All the other dogs was barking, that’s why, so I figured there must be a reason.” 

And so we have four separate local columnists taking up the story of the dissing of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums at the funeral of the four fallen Oakland Police officers, all of them—predictably—from the point of view that it is Mr. Dellums who was somehow to blame for the whole debacle. 

If you missed the story—and it’s hard to see how you could—Mr. Dellums was asked not to speak at the funeral at the request of at least one of the families of the officers. It has also been reported that one of the officers themselves may have also left instructions that Mr. Dellums not be allowed to speak if the officer were to be killed in the line of duty. And there was also some involvement in the affair by the Oakland Police Officers Association, the police union, though how deeply OPOA’s leaders’ hands were in this is not known. But actual reporting on the details have been so sparse that it’s difficult to tell from the published accounts exactly who was responsible for the disinvitation of Mr. Dellums. 

Anyhow, that hasn’t stopped our local columnists from colummenting. 

On March 29, San Francisco Chronicle political gossip columnists Philip Matier and Andrew Ross wrote that “it’s no secret that Dellums—who is often long on rhetoric and short on action—is not held in high regard among some members of the Oakland PD.” 

Meanwhile, in explaining why Mr. Dellums was asked not to speak at the funeral, Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross continued: “It didn’t help that after the March 21 killings Dellums was a no-show for several hours, before finally holding a short press conference—while others, including state Attorney General and ex-Mayor Jerry Brown and East Oakland City Council members Larry Reid and Desley Brooks, spent hours with shell-shocked cops at police union headquarters.” 

That was followed two days later by the Chronicle’s East Bay columnist, Chip Johnson, writing that “Friday’s decision [to exclude Mr. Dellums] was made in deference to the officers’ last wishes and with the support of their colleagues, but also served as a no-confidence vote from rank-and-file officers.” 

Was the decision to exclude Mr. Dellums the sentiment of the rank-and-file officers of the Oakland Police Department? Perhaps that’s true, perhaps not, but Mr. Johnson offered no evidence of that other than his own assertion. 

Mr. Johnson then went on to say that “Dellums arrived at the police officers’ union hall five hours after the shooting. A councilmember said the mayor—by his own inaction—has become ‘irrelevant’ and of no use.” 

Was Mr. Dellums “inactive” in the hours immediately following the MacArthur shootings of the four police officers? More on that in a moment. 

The Chronicle contributions to this discussion were followed on April 4 by Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune columnist Tammerlin Drummond, who wrote that “police sources told me” that Dellums was asked not to speak because “no one wanted to run the risk that Dellums would botch the men’s names—like he did with the name of another police officer at his funeral service last summer.” 

That stemmed from the fact that Mr. Dellums reportedly misstated the name and rank of Oakland Police Lieutenant Derrick Norfleet, who committed suicide last summer. 

This new assertion, that the real reason that Mr. Dellums was dissed was because he might misstate a name, was picked up the next day by Robert Gammon of the East Bay Express, who repeated it in a blog entry entitled “Dellums Too Incompetent to Speak At Funeral.” 

A public official like Mr. Dellums makes hundreds of statements and speeches in a year, and the fact that he once misstated a name in one of those public addresses is hardly a judgment of competence or incompetence. On March 18 of this year, for example, in its “corrections” column, the East Bay Express wrote that the paper’s “March 11 article ‘Separate and Unequal at Berkeley’s Small Schools’ included several errors. Student Body President Ronald Pernell was incorrectly identified as Ronald Purnell. Berkeley High Jacket editor Megan Winkelman was incorrectly identified as Megan Coleman. PTA President Mark van Krieken was identified as Mark Van Kriegan and incorrectly referred to as a supporter of small schools.” Does the inclusion of “several errors” in a story make the East Bay Express “incompetent?” No, only human. But apparently the paper has adopted a different standard for the mayor of Oakland. 

Meanwhile, in her April 4 article, Ms. Drummond gave more assertions about Mr. Dellums’ actions immediately following the MacArthur shootings: “For several hours after the shootings,” Ms. Drummond wrote, “Dellums was missing in action. He didn’t show up at the police substation at Eastmont Mall—blocks from the scene of the first shooting—for a police briefing. Councilwoman Desley Brooks, D-Eastmont-Seminary—the shootings occurred in her district—was there. So was Councilman Larry Reid, D-Elmhurst-East Oakland, who represents the neighboring district. 

“Nor did Dellums go to Highland Hospital where the wounded officers were taken for treatment. Or to any of the shooting scenes. The city’s top elected official was nowhere to be found. Dellums did not surface until much later at the Oakland Police Officer’s Association downtown where grieving, dazed officers had gathered along with city officials and a police chaplain. How on earth could Dellums have thought that monitoring a tragedy of this magnitude by telephone was the right thing to do?” 

Putting all of these columnist accounts together, you have Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross saying that Mr. Dellums was a “no-show” for “several hours” after the shootings, and only then to attend a press conference. Ms. Drummond also puts the vague term “much later” as the mayor’s arrival at the OPOA headquarters, while Mr. Johnson pegged that arrival time as “five hours.” Other than that, the three columnists all agree that Mr. Dellums did nothing in the hours immediately after the MacArthur shootings. 

But is that true? It’s hard to tell from the columnists’ accounts, since they simply assert these things as fact, without indicating a named source—either an individual or a newspaper account—from where they came. So just for my own curiosity, I called the mayor’s office to find out their account of those frantic hours on the afternoon of March 21 following the news of the police shootings. Their chronology, put together by the notes and reminiscences of three separate staff members: 

1:22 p.m. (approximately)—The mayor was notified about the shootings of the first two officers, Mark Dunakin and John Hege, through an alert sent out to key city personnel by the Fire Department. Sometime shortly afterwards, the mayor was in telephone communication with Acting Police Chief Howard Jordan, who briefed him on what was known of the situation at the time, and told him to “stand by” to receive further information as it came in. During the approximately two-hour manhunt for the shooter that followed, the mayor’s staff said that Mr. Dellums and City Manager Dan Lindheim were “in the communication loop” about the transpiring events. 

3:30 p.m (approximately)—SWAT Officers Dan Sakai and Erv Romans and Lovelle Mixon were all shot at a gunbattle in a 74th Avenue apartment where Mr. Mixon had been hiding. 

4 p.m. (approximately): Mr. Jordan briefed Mr. Dellums, Mr. Lindheim, and other key city officials by the telephone about the end of the search for the MacArthur Boulevard shooter, including the resulting gunbattle. The briefing lasted approximately 15 minutes. At that time, three of the officers were already dead and one, Mr. Hege, was at Highland Hospital in critical condition. During the call, Mr. Dellums told Mr. Jordan that he wanted to talk with the families of the fallen officers as well as the rank and file officers of the Oakland Police Department. Mr. Jordan informed the mayor that the next of kin of all of the officers had not yet been informed. Sometime during the briefing, Mr. Dellums told Mr. Jordan that he would “take his cue from the acting chief” as to when it would be appropriate for the mayor to speak with the families and the rank-and-file officers. Mr. Jordan told Mr. Dellums that the mayor should go to the Oakland Police Officers Association downtown Oakland headquarters, where officers were gathering and grief counseling was being implemented. It was at the Acting Police Chief’s recommendation that Mr. Dellums did not visit the hospital where Mr. Hege was still fighting for his life. 

4:30 p.m. (approximately)—Mr. Jordan held a preliminary press briefing at the OPD Eastmont Station about the events of the day. 

5:15 p.m. (approximately)—Mr. Dellums arrived at the OPOA headquarters and stayed for approximately one and and a half to two hours, speaking with rank and file officers. 

8 p.m. (approximately)—Mr. Dellums went to the OPD headquarters for a briefing in preparation for a 9 p.m. final press conference on the day’s events. 

Using that chronology, let’s go back, briefly, over the columnists’ assertions about Mr. Dellums’ actions on the day of the shootings. 

The assertion by Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross that Mr. Dellums appeared briefly at a press conference—while other officials were “spending hours” with officers at OPOA headquarters—appears to be simply untrue. That’s also the case for Mr. Johnson’s assertion of a “five-hour” delay in the mayor’s arrival at OPOA. Mr. Dellums arrived at OPOA headquarters approximately an hour after he was briefed by Mr. Jordan on the end of the day’s shootings. 

For her part, Ms. Drummond avoids outright misstatements of fact, but her contentions of what the mayor should have done seem odd. She implies, for example, that monitoring the situation by telephone was somehow improper, and that Mr. Dellums was derelict by not visiting the shooting scenes. Visiting the shooting scenes when, and to do what, for God’s sake? During the two-hour manhunt for the shooter, it would have been criminal interference for the mayor to come up to MacArthur and 73rd. There would have been nothing for him to do, no way for him to help, and his presence would have distracted officers and command staff from the job at hand. That, presumably, was why the mayor chose to monitor the events by telephone, which seems the prudent, proper, and normal course for an elected leader to have followed in these days of modern communications. Immediately following the shootings in the 74th Avenue apartment and the end of the hunt, the entire area of the MacArthur Boulevard and 74th Avenue shootings was a crime scene and off limits to anyone not processing evidence. The mayor did show up at the shooting scene, three days later, to participate in the touching, Tuesday evening memorial services, at the time when it was the most appropriate. Mr. Dellums’ actions on the day of the MacArthur shootings appear to have been prudent and proper, and did our city proud. Criticism of the mayor is always in order but, as they say out here in the Deep East Oakland, I wonder why these columnists keep hatin’ on him, so? 


Note: This is my 300th UnderCurrents column for the Berkeley Daily Planet. Thanks to the paper and all my readers for making this continuing long run possible.