I live in the quiet, safe Lakeshore neighborhood of Oakland. Of course,it’s not completely safe-we suffer car break-ins and home burglaries and some street robberies-this is a high crime city. But lately something has been going very wrong even in our neighborhood-and the Oakland Police Department has become part of the problem.
For many decades OPD had a reputation as one of the worst departments in the country. It was said that the department used to recruit “Southern crackers” to come beat on Oakland’s Black population. That experience helped Oakland give birth to the Black Panthers whose number one job was to prevent police violence (and provide programs like free breakfasts which served as government models) until they were mostly wiped out by government forces.
But many years into the implementation of federal oversight of OPD, the department had just begun to reform under the quiet leadership of new Police Chief Sean Whent. After a terrible rate of police killings averaging seven a year and under its first woman mayor, Jean Quan, use of force complaints dropped significantly. A high school senior, Alan Blueford, was shot to death and the mayor took steps which resulted in no more police killings for the last two years of her administration.
That may seem like little enough to ask, but it seemed to herald a change. The force recruited new young commanders and made them accountable to the neighborhoods they oversaw. Many of us were hopeful for reform while still keeping a close eye on how things developed.
But back to my quiet little Lakeshore neighborhood, I was heading out to a meeting in the Fruitvale a recent summer Thursday evening (you’ll see why the summer description is important later). As I drove down Lakeshore I heard sirens and watched as three police vans careened around a corner a block ahead of me, two of them sherrif’s vans and one OPD van.
Wow, I thought, something really dangerous is happening on that little street. As I continued down Lakeshore and across Mandana, I heard more sirens and speeding vehicles, pulling over barely in time to prevent my car from getting clipped by a police car flying down Mandana as two more raced back down Lakeshore. Watching in my rear view mirror, I saw at least one more shoot across Mandana-so that’s at least 7 cars in going 3 directions within a couple minutes-flying up, down, and around our quiet neighborhood. Restaurant patrons could be seen pouring out onto the sidewalk to see what the hell was going on.
I tweeted about it and received a private message from one commander who regularly responds on twitter.He replied that he was on vacation and so didn’t know what was going on but made sure to tell me that they don’t do those high speed car chases anymore as they are acknowledged as too dangerous.
Recall that I said it was a summer evening-school hadn’t started and it was between 6:15 and 6:30. Not only could a car have easily been hit but a child playing ball or just crossing the street could have easily been run down. So I asked a friend who lives in Deep East about his experience, and he told me they still do high speed chases in his neighborhood all the time but they don’t admit to it. [We later heard on the TV news that they were chasing a robbery suspect but no Nixle, no police response to the danger they put our neighbors in was forthcoming, nor has it yet.]
Then two more disturbing things happened in our neighborhood this summer that make me think-something has gone terribly wrong with police reform in Oakland. Our department of which I was recently proud, has managed to kill 4 suspects this summer alone, not including one very strange death that may or may not have occurred in police custody. According to the bit of police video that a few select folks have seen, it was not caused by officers; but it was such a bizarre death, no one is willing to believe that.
Surprisingly, two of the recent police shootings which resulted in deaths happened in my neighborhood, the GrandLake district. One of them, the death of Demouria Hogg, has still not been explained, and no video has been shown to anyone outside the department. It occurred after he had been seen passed out in his car right on the off ramp to Lakeshore. It may have been justified but the public can’t know that and the lack of transparency can only lead to one conclusion. The other was the death of a young homeless man who had attacked an officer with a bike chain. The whole episode seems badly done all around but it’s hard to judge how it might have been dealt with, with no videos and differing accounts from neighbors.
Here’s the thing, there are plenty of folks in Oakland who will assume that the police killed a dangerous bad guy AND there are some who will assume the police were totally unjustified. There are two ways to fix this 1) show the videos, and 2) go back to the drawing board and work harder not to kill people who have not been tried and found guilty (more mental illness intervention and training, etc.)
Now I’m not assuming, as some will, that these officers wanted to kill these suspects. But something has changed and we have taken a step back in our quest for a reformed department, one that does not use excessive force unless absolutely necessary. Some have even asked if the new mayor has somehow sent a signal for a police crackdown regardless the loss of lives and community trust. We know she sent a signal for a crackdown against demonstrators although she seems to have backed down on that in the face of community opposition.
I’ve been happy with and noted that this mayor has made some really good appointments to top jobs and even one commission appointment-that of a young man who is a leader in the field of restorative justice. But, if there is even a suggestion, a hint, to command staff and rank and file to let up on reform and reducing use of force, this could be the result.
One thing we do know is that Mayor Schaaf has not been as visible as Mayor Quan in the community. Does she do regular ride-alongs as her predecessor did? Does she talk with young people in East Oakland about this issue and visit their neighborhoods? I just don’t know.
But the last time I saw her appear with the chief was after the May Day debacle of vandalism on Broadway Auto Row and that appearance did not go well. A chief who is trying to reform a department like ours needs open support from the city’s leadership or his force will lose faith in his leadership.
To me the question of whether a police shooting was justified is difficult to answer without the evidence being presented in some form to the community. Our city has led by obtaining cameras for our officers and insisting that they use them, but what good does that do if we never see the videos?!
It’s time we demand that our city and state leaders develop comprehensive legislation clarifying how and when these videos will be made public and how they will be preserved. The Riders scandal was a direct result of Jerry Brown’s promise that his administration would reduce crime by a certain percentage and the force’s response to getting it done.
But “enlightened” law enforcement knows that crime cannot be brought down without the assistance and trust of the community most impacted by it. Without trust in our local institutions, there is no way to reduce crime and violence. We need to hear from our mayor and her administration that she supports reform-including reducing these fatal responses-and our chief that we the public have a right to know how our police department is functioning-including taking responsibility when it is at fault.