Jan Gilbrecht is an Oakland activist who recently attended the Citizens’ Police Academy and worked with other activists to request that the Oakland City Council consider setting up a police commission, a request the council failed to take action on. In this column, she explains the reasons that the creation of such a commission or body of public oversight has become ever more essential.
We, the Policed
“Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…”
One of the fundamental premises of our political culture is the idea that government exists to secure the rights of the people and must be based on the consent of the governed. In our system of representative democracy, our elected leaders stand in for us, there to insure that our government exercises its powers – especially police powers – fairly, justly, lawfully and in the interests of the citizenry.
Events of the past few weeks have shown again that that things work backward in Oakland. Our rights and interests are being subordinated to those of a well-organized, well financed (and well armed) group of Oakland city employees, the vast majority of whom don’t even live among us. Our police department is out of control, and virtually running the city from the narrow perspective of their own group interest.
To me it’s clear: The council must act now to address our current police and political crisis by putting operational authority in hands of a special interim civilian police commission. This commission must be given sufficient resources and a strong mandate: to get us on track to an effective law enforcement program that is equally committed to protecting the civil rights and liberties of Oakland residents.
I attended the Oakland City Council on September 18 to support the grieving family of a young man named Alan Blueford, shot to death last May just weeks before high school graduation by OPD Officer Miguel Masso as part of a “stop and frisk” gone bad. His family members are pushing for answers in the face of a total stonewall by the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office.
The Bluefords were there with a large and diverse group of community and religious supporters. They told the council that the recently obtained Coroner’s report contradicted OPD’s changing versions of events. They also noted that Masso had been hired by Oakland while he was named in a federal civil rights action charging police brutality while he was an NYPD officer. Finally, they demanded that the city provide them with a copy of the police report in Alan’s shooting, which had been promised to them months ago.
With the family at the podium, Larry Reid (in whose District the shooting took place) and City Administrator Deanna Santana said that Chief Jordan was on his way over with a copy of the report. The meeting was adjourned to await Jordan’s arrival, but the break stretched on and on. Council members circulated through the audience, speaking with the family and supporters, expressing empathy in this horrific situation. Jordan never showed. The council meeting was re-convened briefly before jeers broke out when councilmember De La Fuente was unable or unwilling to explain why there was no report, no Chief Jordan. [For an account of the meeting and background on the case: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/09/19/searching-for-answers-to-a-police-killing/]
I was astounded. What a snub by Jordan and Santana to the family, the community members who were present, and to the council members who had just publicly promised the report. But then it got worse.
A few days later – still no report for the family – OPD leaked to the media a rumor that, improbable as it seems given the Coroner’s finding that there was no gun shot residue on his hands, Alan’s fingerprints were found on a gun located twenty feet from where his body lay. [http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Oakland-police-Victim-s-prints-on-gun-3886366.php]. This after the mayor and council had promised the Bluefords that their son would not be slandered in the press.
Then, just when I thought that the OPD leaders couldn’t make themselves look any more like an arrogant, out of control gang of thugs, I read that members of the Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA) are now publicly attacking a city council member currently running for re-election, over remarks she allegedly made that night to family members and supporters. An OPD Sergeant and OPOA officer says he heard Rebecca Kaplan compare the hiring of Masso by Oakland after the incident in New York to the practice by the Catholic Church of transferring pedophile priests from one parish to another.
Actually, I find that to be a fair comparison. Masso’s actions and the horrible nature of the incident were well documented [http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/oakland-police-officer-involved-shooting-of-alan-blueford-raises-questions/Content?oid=3295686] . Whether or not he was acting lawfully when shot and killed Alan Blueford, the question remains: why would OPD would hire an officer who was involved in a case like that?
According to the head of the OPOA, Kaplan’s reported comments were “extremely offensive to all those who wear the blue uniform,” and that OPOA had withheld an endorsement of Kaplan as a result. Sadly, Kaplan is backpedaling and apologizing as fast as she can. What does it mean that a councilmember can be so easily muzzled? Who will put their foot down when it comes to hiring practices like these?
What a travesty – police officers heavy handedly injecting themselves into our local election in a nasty attempt to shield a questionable cop and a possible murderer. It’s one thing when a public sector union uses money or muscle to advance its members collective bargaining rights, it’s another thing entirely when they do it to shield an allegedly violent, abusive cop, or to obstruct an honest and open investigation into the police homicide of this young man, thereby increasing the rift between the community and the OPD. [http://www.mercurynews.com/top-stories/ci_21630899/opd-accuses-rebecca-kaplan-smearing-officers]
Despite the constant cheerleading efforts on the part of the department and the city, public confidence in the OPD is at an all time low. Oakland is far from homogeneous, but there’s something there for everyone to dislike. In the OPD we have one of the most highly compensated, poorly administered, and least effective police departments in California [http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/the-high-costs-of-outsourcing-policeandnbsp/Content?oid=3306199] Contrary to OPD propaganda, the recent Frazier Report confirms it is far from the leanest staffed department in the area [http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/cityadministrator/documents/webcontent/oak036236.pdf ; see page 113]. Yet OPD has one of the worst crime clearance rates for homicides and other violent crimes. And you can forget about even getting an officer to respond to a property crime.
Ten years into a Federal Court monitored negotiated settlement agreement stemming from the horrific systematic police abuses perpetrated over the course of years in West Oakland and brought to light by the Riders lawsuit, the OPD has cost the taxpayers more than $58 million in judgments and settlements because of gross and repeated civil rights violations against members of our own community. Depending on the outcome of a December hearing before Federal District Court Judge Henderson, Oakland could become the first city in the country with a police department placed in federal receivership, even after the millions that have been spent on a raft of outside police consultants and contractors. The legacy of this is with us now: lawless disregard for our citizenry by the police only breeds disregard for the law among our young people.
Instead of taking seriously the fiscal responsibility that should come with using up 40% of our collective resources, the police budget is wasted on inadequately researched, ineffective technology boondoggles, through-the-roof workers compensation costs, featherbedding that is rampant in Internal Affairs and elsewhere, selected officers who are raking in the highest overtime payments in the state, positions which could be better performed by lower paid civilians that are filled by sworn officers. Instead of siding with the community and making police effectiveness a priority, OPD and OPOA petulantly demand unquestioning support, full control and are constantly lobbying for even more resources. History makes it clear – the OPD cannot reform itself.
That brings us to the subject of City Administrator Deanna Santana, who currently has full authority over the OPD. Her role has been highlighted recently, both by revelations in the press [http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/deanna-santana-tried-to-alter-damning-report/Content?oid=3341245] , and by her efforts to have federal monitor Robert Warshaw removed by the court based on charges of sexual harassment. The bottom line is this: whatever the merits of her harassment allegations against Warshaw, Judge Henderson refused to replace him. This alone should have lead Santana to step down from her role with OPD, given the obvious conflict of interest. In spite of the devastating financial burden it would impose, it appears that no one in city government is making an effort to avoid trusteeship through compliance.
The Police Commission I envision would deal with far more than issues related to complaints against officers and individual discipline, supposedly the purview of our current, badly broken, ineffective Citizens Police Review Board-overhaul of which should also be on the agenda. We need and have a right to meaningful oversight and input into a whole host of issues, like: curriculum content for the police academy and other training; policing policies and directives, such as crowd control, use of force, stop and frisk and community policing; terms of agreements between OPD and other police agencies; conditions of federal and other grants and their obligations; decisions on major equipment and systems purchases; efforts to cut costs by civilianizing positions, and other means; effective human resources management, including contract negotiations to keep compensation, progressive discipline and working conditions at but not above area standards and intelligence gathering and surveillance activities within our community. These are the range and types of issues that are addressed by civilian police commissions in Berkeley, San Francisco and a host of other cities.
According to the Oakland City Charter, Section 601. Boards and Commissions: “The Council may create by ordinance such operational, advisory, appellate or rule-making boards and commissions as may be required for the proper operation of any function or agency of the City and prescribe their function, duties, powers, jurisdiction …” Some may say that the timing is bad given the upcoming elections. Some on the Council may just be sitting on their hands and hoping that Judge Henderson will take the problem away through trusteeship. How about members stepping forward to demonstrate that they aren’t the captives of the OPOA they sometimes appear to be?
It’s not that hard. Draft an ordinance creating a special commission. Give it four missions: to increase police effectiveness and maximize resource utilization; to create a culture in which the respect and protection of the civil rights of all our citizens is central to the OPD mission; to develop a permanent model for effective civilian oversight and control of policing in Oakland and to aggressively attempt to find alternatives to the institution of federal receivership over the OPD.
Dive in and recruit five to seven well qualified and committed citizens who can bring expertise in constitutional law, public administration, technology and communications, labor relations or other areas, and who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard for this city – they are out there. Empower them to hire a civilian Inspector General to oversee, audit and inspect any aspect of the department’s operations and report back to the commission. Bring the community to the table by holding hearings and soliciting input. Cities like Los Angeles and Detroit have emerged from situations as bad as ours by taking similar paths.
The Blueford family is headed back to City Council on Tuesday, October 2, once again looking for answers. I’ll be there too, ready to ask our democratically elected council members to take a real stand for change, for Alan and his family, for the crime victims in the hills and the flatlands, for the plaintiffs in the Riders case, for all of us in Oakland, to put our interests first. I hope that everyone else who cares about the future of Oakland will be there as well.