STRAIGHT TALK ON THE SIDESHOWS
I know some of you think I’m obsessing on this sideshow thing. But getting straight talk from local public officials and agencies about Oakland’s sideshows is like getting straight talk from the Bush Administration about why we’re going to war in Iraq.
My latest adventure comes from a couple of exchanges with Simeon Gant, Press Secretary and Field Representative for State Senator Don Perata, and Lieutenant David A. Kozicki of the Traffic Section of the Oakland Police Department.
I called Mr. Gant, first, to ask him about an August 21st Peggy Stinnett column on Perata’s sideshow car confiscation bill, in which she writes: "In Oakland, there’s even a sideshow committee, says Perata, that has gone through an extensive evaluation of issues and potential solutions. Committee members include police, officials and community members." That bit of information was news to me. It apparently was news to Perata’s press secretary. He said that while a task force put together by the Oakland Police Department had approached Perata about a bill to control the sideshows, he knew nothing about such a committee as described in the Stinnett column.
While Mr. Gant had me on the telephone, he wanted to make sure I understood the reasons behind the need for a new state law to crack down on the sideshows. Sideshow driving is closely connected with drinking and drugs, he said, noting that "90% of the people driving at the sideshows are either inebriated or under the influence of a foreign substance." Later in the conversation, he upped the figure to "99%." So where did he get such a figure from? A "guestimation," was how he put it. With so many people running around in cars in these sideshows, he said, how would it be possible for the police to know who was under the influence and who wasn’t? How, indeed?
The problem I have here is if all these sideshowers are rolling around Oakland streets drinking and driving, what was the need for a sideshow law? Why don’t the police just arrest them for DUI? If what Mr. Gant says is true, I mean.
Around the same time as my conversations with Mr. Gant from Perata’s office, I got an email from Lt. Kozicki from OPD, wanting to correct some "errors and misconceptions" in one of my recent sideshow columns. In downplaying possible legal alternatives to the sideshows, Lt. Kozicki wrote that sideshow activity "is closely tied to ‘after-hours’ activity which obviously includes driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs." Obviously? Does that mean, then, that OPD has compiled statistics on sideshow activity and DUI?
If they have, Lt. Kozicki didn’t give any. Instead, he told me that "almost 80% of the cars towed from Sideshow participants are towed because the drivers are unlicensed."
Well, driving without a license is against the law, true, but it’s hardly the kind of threat to the Republic that requires a million and a half in police overtime to control. Certainly not like DUI, which is a serious, dangerous offense. But the Lieutenant’s sideshow-tow-unlicensed-driver statistic invites another question. In compiling such statistics, how do these offenses get to be sideshow-related? How does the OPD define a sideshow?
"That is the question I have grappled with for the past two years," the Lieutenant emails back, which is a sort of code way of saying that no, the OPD has no official definition of a sideshow. He gave me his own, personal definition. But if there is no official OPD definition of a sideshow, what meaning is there to any police statistics that say what happened at a sideshow?
Which brings us around to the DUI issue. The penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs are substantial in California, even for first offense: up to six months in jail for alcohol, up to a year in jail for drugs, and a fine of up to $1,000 for both. If the incidences of DUI at sideshow events…however those events are defined…are as obvious as Lt. Kozicki asserts, and as pervasive as Mr. Gant contends, then why didn’t the application of California’s DUI laws by the Oakland Police Department shut down Oakland’s sideshows a long time ago? And why did we need a new sideshow law?
Do you see my problem here?