What on Earth is Going on with the Oakland Police Department?

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.

6 Comments on "What on Earth is Going on with the Oakland Police Department?"

  1. Agreed, on all of your reform points. I think the Mayor needs to come out and discuss OPD’s use of force and that 4 officer involved shootings within the space of months is unacceptable. She should also ask that videos be shared publicly. Maybe during a Public Safety Committee Meeting? If not the Mayor, then the Public Safety Committee themselves should request it.

    BTW … I saw on Twitter today that OPD just concluded a high speed chase through Fruitvale.

  2. rashidah grinage | September 1, 2015 at 3:07 am | Reply

    Good piece. Rashidah Coalition for Police Accountability http://coalitionforpoliceaccountability.wordpress.com “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” William Shakespeare “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” ― John E Lewis

  3. What has changed? Same police chief, same police department …new mayor.

  4. I do have some thoughts on your post, based on my pretty extensive research and experiences in 2012 trying to figure out the OPD and work for a police commission then. First, I am not aware that there is a police reform movement in the department. Reform implies that there is an actual real assessment of the problems and a program for change that can be publicly discussed and supported, not that there was a guy in place that you like and coincidentally no one is shot by the cops for two years. You are giving Jean too much credit and Libby to much blame. Oakland should know by now that the “man on the white horse” solution isn’t real, not for OPD or the school system. Real police reform isn’t about optics or ride alongs or press conferences with the Mayor’s arms around the Chief, or even about winning a ballot measure and getting a toothless police commission that then everyone can try to make into the new hero on the white horse (and stalking horse to blame when nothing changes). It’s about having the political will and commitment to take on the hard issues related to policing and build consensus among a divided citizenry. It’s about firing the top fifty racist violent offenders on the force as an example – they are really easy to identify if you spend any time reading through complaints and lawsuits or talking to victims. It’s about busting the bad language in the police union contract that everyone points to has an excuse to allow this travesty to go on. It’s about refusing to accept excuses for why nothing can be done now and why hands are tied and we always have to wait for a state law to be changed or a ballot measure to be passed. I call bullshit on that – PEOPLE ARE BEING KILLED NOW! Why aren’t police reform activists jamming every meeting of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, insisting that they hold a public hearing on the OPD’s use of force policy, the training curricula on these issues, the internal review process, etc. Are reform advocates researching this issue, finding the resources and experts to contradict the current policy, to educate Oaklanders that there are better ways to do things? Why aren’t folks insisting that the police video be played in public at the next Public Safety meeting in each case of police use of force, whether it is deadly or not? What is a Public Safety committee of the Council for if it ignores events where Oakland citizens and visitors are killed, brutalized or abused by Oakland employees? Since I started working in the criminal “justice” system in 1998, I have been beating my head against the wall in frustration at the apathy of the American public to the brutalities that are committed daily in their name and with their dollars. IMHO, the Black Lives Matter movement has created an opening that has to be moved on NOW! Rashidah has a database full of horror stories, lawyers like Walter Riley know the victims up close and personal. You guys could be making up virtual and real “wanted” posters of OPD’s top racist, violent offenders that give the details of their actions and give voice to their victims – THAT would give political support to any police chief truly dedicated to reform, or put fire under the ass of one who is not.
    Getting down off the soap box now.

  5. I did not intend to blame the new mayor but only to ask questions as to whether there is a change in direction, either as policy or inadvertently. I expect we will know more soon.

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