A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
UnderCurrents Column
Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper
December 15, 2006

In a scene in the Civil War movie “Gettysburg,” a Confederate spy named Harrison is sent out on a night mission to scout out the position and strength of the Union army encamped in the Pennsylvania valley. The spy, identified in the movie as a former Mississippi stage actor, takes the assignment, but tells the general “but I must confess, sir, the thing that bothers me about this job [spying] is the absence of an audience. When you do it right, no-one knows you’re doing it. Nobody watches your work. It’s very hard on an actor.”

Politicians are often actors, and if you think I’m only talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan, you’ve already missed the point of this particular sermon. Some politicians–I won’t speculate on the number–are deeply sincere in their convictions, and try to carry them out to the best of their ability within a deeply flawed system. But to other politicians–again, who knows how many–it’s all a game, an act, an end within itself, they go about their days publicly posturing and promising while privately dealing, maintaining themselves in power by any means they can get a way with, with little or no intent to actually solve the problems we have sent them up there to address.

Jerry Brown–formerly Secretary of State and Governor, lately mayor of the City of Oakland, currently on his way to the post of Attorney General of the State of California–is one of the most adept of these politician-actors, charming his way through a succession of public offices on a minimum of accomplishments, a maximum of show, virtually untouched by the disasters left in his wake.

That Mr. Brown has gotten away with it so long–and continues to get away with it to this moment–will be one of the more fascinating stories of this era to political historians of another time. But how Mr. Brown has gotten away with it is one of the most underreported political stories of the present time. To keep the act up, Mr. Brown must keep us blinded by the stagelights and draw attention away from what is happening backstage. But like actor-spy in the movie, sometimes he chafes that his best work is being obscured and, with a sly wink and smile, open up the curtains just a little to give us a small peek at the real performance inside.

Asked by a New York Times reporter late last month if the newly-empowered national Democratic Party will be able to shape events in Iraq, Mr. Brown unexpectedly replied with what could be described as his definition of his lifelong profession as politician. “It’s possible that President Bush will learn from [the Democratic victory] and collaborate with the Congress,” the paper reported Mr. Brown as saying. “In fact, that is the essence of an effective politician–to shift ground when the ground he’s on is collapsing under him.”

Although we certainly want our politicians to be able to listen to their constituents and admit error and change position when and if they discover that their position is in error, we hear none of that here, and how much of a stretch is it to turn the verb “shift” into “shiftiness?”

In May of 2003–as reported two years ago in this column–Mr. Brown was more forthcoming in describing the politician’s role–his politician’s role–when he spoke to a gathering of the Los Angeles Bar Association.
"There's a law we passed while I was running for reelection [for California governor]," Mr. Brown told the LA lawyers, "that said every high school will establish strict graduation standards, and no student can graduate without meeting them. So I took out an ad. … The ad said we solved the problem of standards and slack performance in schools, because now we have graduation standards... Well that was 1978 and of course, Deukmejian had an education program, Wilson had something, Gray Davis has these exit exams and now even George Bush has a ‘no-child-left-behind' with the same kind of idea: standards examination. The point I want to make is that if you've got a problem, you can milk that thing a long time."

Cynical enough? Unbelievably, there was more.

"When my father was running for District Attorney of San Francisco in 1943," Mr. Brown went on to the assembled attorneys, "he had a slogan [that] said: ‘Crack Down On Crime. Pick Brown This Time.’ I tell you I've been using that slogan. I find it still works. Everybody keeps making similar claims: ‘...if you elect me you’re going to crack down on crime’... Between reducing crime and improving education, you can keep that going a long time."

The entire speech was once reprinted on Mr. Brown’s website at www.jerrybrown.org. While it has since disappeared, the late Oakland activist Jeanette Sherwin posted the transcript to her Oakland News website.

Given this information, then, no-one should have been surprised to read the report by San Francisco Chronicle political columnists Matier & Ross this week that begins with the sentence “Stunning as it may sound, Oakland's Police Department–which handles some of the toughest crimes in the Bay Area–doesn't have anyone who can read or match fingerprints.” OPD’s three-person fingerprint processing department, the columnists report, has been shut down for the past seven months “for lack of money and staff.” According to Matier & Ross, Mary Gibbons, the OPD crime lab chief, says that “she was forced to close the unit when the last of her fingerprint experts, hired with grant money and therefore temporary, left for the security of permanent jobs elsewhere.” Money to reopen the unit with two new technicians was not put into the budget until this year, after the unit had been closed. Meanwhile, fingerprints from Oakland homicide and rape investigations are sent to outside agencies, but fingerprints from other crimes are seriously backlogged or, in some instances, not even being taken at crime scenes by Oakland police because they know they will never get processed.

Fingerprints used to be one of the staples of crime scene investigations. In recent years, the use of DNA has gotten more attention. But DNA is not always left by criminals at a crime scene and, even if it is, that has not made fingerprints any less valuable, because having DNA and fingerprint evidence together makes it both easier to identify a suspect and to thereafter convict that suspect in court.

How many crimes have been left unsolved, or perpetrators unconvicted, is impossible to determine. But logic tells us it must be some. And because of that, some perpetrators who should have been taken out of circulation were free to stay on the streets of Oakland and commit more crimes.

But what is most shocking–and even disgusting–about this situation is that Oakland citizens were not told about the problem with the financing of the OPD fingerprint lab when those citizens were in a position to do something about it.

During the fall of 2004, Oakland city officials campaigned extensively for the violence-prevention funding Measure Y, which raised city taxes in part to increase police services. While there was much discussion about the shortage of police officers in Oakland at that time, at no time during that period was the public made aware that there might be a problem in the fingerprint processing department because it was funded by grant money and, therefore, permanent money for the department should be included in the measure. Had the Oakland public known the problem, it is almost certain that we would have approved language in Measure Y that set aside some of the money for the fingerprint department. Instead, fingerprint processing is not listed as one of the approved purposes in the Measure Y expenditure language, which, according to its language and the City Attorney’s analysis, is specifically limited to police department hiring “63 new sworn police officers, including at least one officer for each existing community policing beat, for combating truancy, for a crime reduction team, for domestic violence and child abuse intervention, and for community policing training and equipment.”

Was Jerry Brown responsible for this lapse? Absolutely.

While the Oakland Police Department is run by the chief of police, the mayor has ultimate authority, with the responsibility of seeing that the major budgetary needs of the department are met by the city. In addition, in preparing for his run of Attorney General, Mr. Brown made law and order his specific province and one of his top priorities. For someone serious about solving Oakland’s crime problems, keeping the fingerprint unit online should have been high on the list of things to get done.

But that presupposes that when you promise that you are going to crack down on crime, it is more than just a campaign slogan that can be milked out over time.

Mercy, as my old editor, Jim French, used to say.