What the Pundits Missed.

I wrote this piece on why Batts and other chiefs often don’t last long in that job. Though Batts may be staying, the issues remain. Please pass it on-

Local pundits, Chip Johnson and Tammerlin Drummond, have weighed in on why they think Anthony Batts wants to leave his post as our new Chief of Police. I’m confused by some of the assumptions they make when trying to second guess the Chief.

For one, Drummond and Johnson seem to think that Oakland is suffering from more severe budget problems than other cities. But we also know that San Jose came very close to laying off over a hundred of its officers last year before the San Jose Police Officers Association offered to share in pension costs. If you read the news about San Jose today, you will find that continued budget woes are causing their mayor to consider imposing police layoffs again.

Secondly, Johnson and Drummond like to promote the idea that Mayor Jean Quan has always had a “testy relationship” with the police so that’s why Batts might be thinking of leaving. This was never the truth unless you based that whole assumption on her vote to lay off 80 officers after pension negotiations failed last year.

Quan was a council member at the time and voted with the majority to reduce the force when all other options had been exhausted. Even after the incident where the Oakland Police Officers’ Association used a public meeting to endorse her opponent ( Batts had been present but left just prior to the announcement), Don Perata, Ms. Quan had only positive things to say about the Chief and looked forward to working with him.

Let’s see Batts wants to leave, if he does, because of our crime rate. I think he knew about that when he came and pledged to make a difference. By the way, Drummond mentioned that Batts constantly restates his commitment to young African Americans, but no one has noted a change in community relations with those young folks, not yet anyway.

Lots of folks think he’s looking elsewhere because he thought Perata would be mayor and the Don had made  some promises to OPD and the OPOA that would give them all the funds they needed. But even if he had won, Batts is way too smart a guy to believe Perata was an alchemist and could turn common metals into gold (also he applied in October when popular wisdom had Perata winning, but okay, maybe he hedged his bets.)

Batts has even been fairly successful in getting Oakland to buy the idea that gang injunctions are a good use of city crime fighting funds and to consider extending them over broad swathes of the city (to his credit, City Attorney Russo has crafted the injunctions much more narrowly than originally designed.)

So I can’t claim to have any idea what’s in Batts head or how he views his future. My first impression of him was that he’s more concerned about his own political ambitions than his policing ambitions, but of course, in so short a time, it’s hard to know.

Another problem is that Oakland’s Negotiated Settlement Agreement (based on the pattern of abuse discovered during the Riders scandal) continues to be extended. The federal judge in charge of overseeing compliance with the consent decree (NSA), Thelton Henderson, is said to be getting impatient with the department’s inability to comply and is threatening to put the OPD into receivership under which OPD loses control of its department. Losing the department to receivership would be a real blow to any police chief’s political career.

If you look closely, you can notice a recurring theme in many of the problems confronting an Oakland police chief. The police union, the OPOA, continues to stand in the way of making real change to Oakland’s police culture, change that might really affect how crime is fought and what funding is available to fight it.

For one, if the OPOA had been willing to give what every other Oakland union had given along with police unions in other cities, those 80 officers would not have been laid off. If the OPOA leadership really had confidence in the chief, he would have been able to convince them to seriously consider that concession. As to the other problem, the NSA, if the Chief were able to influence the rank and file to make the necessary changes, Thelton Henderson would not be threatening to take over the department.

I have watched many chiefs come and go back to long-time Chief Hart who retired in the 90s. I can’t prove it in a court of law, but it has been common knowledge that OPOA has ruined any chief who really tried to change the culture of the force. The OPOA IS the police department and can determine the success of any chief. The union holds sway on an almost impenetrable culture where change is deeply suspect.

Back in 1994 I was on the first Community Policing Advisory Board (as was Dan Siegel), we studied how other cities had implemented a type of policing that is less about responding to 911 calls and more about being integrally tied into the community as a way to prevent crimes from being committed.

We traveled to Portland and heard that their department was really integrated into neighborhood structures and knew which folks could help and which folks might be the cause of the problems. We were very excited about changing the way the department was viewed from an invading force to a shared network of police personnel, social service agencies, city departments, and neighborhood schools.

But we kept hearing the naysayers and most were in the police department. They told us that old timers would not cotton to doing “social work” rather than being able to “collar” the bad guy after the crime was done.

We were told that union rules would have to be changed in order for officers to work varying hours in which they would sometimes be called to an evening meeting with neighborhood folks. We were told to wait until the force turned over and a new contract could be negotiated in which the officers who actually found preventing crime more gratifying than arresting criminals, could be supported and promoted.

Meanwhile the union kept control of officer hours to such a degree that neither the mayor nor any chief could schedule them during the times they were most needed. Community policing was reduced to a program of the department rather than an overall philosophy of policing.

I have been waiting to see a change, and I do believe that many rank and file members appreciate the needs of the community and willingly embrace community policing, but the union maintains the same stance as it did more than a decade ago.

I’m a union member in good standing, that is, in as good standing as I can be when my whole unit was laid off after adult education was axed in this town. I believe that every union should be able to advocate for the best benefits and working conditions they can get for their members.

I am not part of the growing chorus attacking public workers for getting taxpayer largess when I know it’s the corporate leaders and investment bankers who got the bailouts.

I know being an Oakland officer, is tough and deserving of good pay and benefits. I believe that Oakland officers probably should get more money to work here than some other places. It’s also not the OPOA’s fault that our economy crashed.

But, since the crash most unions have offered to help because it keeps more of their workers employed and, therefore, makes sense (ask the 80 laid off officers if they think the union represented them.) Most other union workers also live in this town and are truly invested in its future. I’m not going to waste space talking about why officers don’t live here. That’s another whole discussion and irrelevant so long as the courts agree that residency cannot be a requirement for employment.

Once again I can’t claim to know why Chief Batts is considering leaving his post in Oakland. But I know from years of watching and closely observing that OPD is difficult for any chief to govern without the consent of the leadership of OPOA. Trying to change that is a recipe for failure for an ambitious chief.

You’re the taxpayer. Who represents you, your elected council member or the police officers union? I’m not saying Batts was influenced by any of this, but what I am saying is that there’s more to policing in Oakland than funding, crime rates, and who’s mayor (or who the mayor’s advisor is). The pundits seemed to have missed that but the rest of us should know better.

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