The Oakland Tribune published an interesting story earlier this week on Oakland police foot patrols.

Oakland used to have 26 full-time walking officers patrolling several of its commercial districts, but announced that this number has been pared down to 18, and will soon be reduced by three more. “Areas such as the Dimond, Montclair and Lakeshore lost their officers when they went on leave for medical reasons and were never replaced,” the Tribune article noted. The article also mentioned the Rockridge and Dimond areas as commercial districts which currently have walking officers. The Dimond commercial district is now scheduled to get a walking officer back, but only by sharing that officer part-time with the Laurel.

"There isn't a lot that everybody seems to agree on when it comes to community issues, but this is an issue that everyone seems to agree on," the Tribune quoted a Lakeshore area community leader as saying. "Everyone agrees walking officers are incredibly effective. They really do make an impact on crime."

We will assume, just for the sake of this discussion, that the Lakeshore area community leader is right, and walking patrols “really do make an impact on crime.” I think it’s a fair conclusion, and have made it myself, from time to time.

Let us now conduct a simple test.

First, think quickly about the commercial districts of Oakland where the highest rates of crime might occur (if you’re having trouble coming up with statistics, think about the commercial areas where you, personally, wouldn’t feel safe parking your car and walking a couple of blocks at night).

Second, review the commercial districts with police foot patrols—either now or in the past—mentioned in the Tribune article (Dimond, Montclair, Lakeshore, Rockridge, and Laurel).

Third, see if any commercial district appears on your first list (districts with the highest crime rates) but not on the list of an Oakland police project that “everyone agrees” has an “impact on crime.”

The Oakland Tribune article is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of the commercial areas where police foot patrols are assigned (for example, the downtown area not only has foot patrols during the day, it also has officers riding on horseback). So let me give you some help in this exercise. While I am not familiar with all of the high-crime commercial districts in the city, I do have something of a working knowledge of one of them—the International Boulevard corridor from High Street to the San Leandro border. This includes the area recently described by one local pastor as Oakland’s “killing zone,” the scene of many of Oakland’s homicides. If police foot patrols operate along this corridor, they must be doing it undercover. Under deep cover. Since 1988, when I returned to Oakland, the only time I have seen an officer out of their car along this stretch of our city—night or day—is when they are investigating a crime scene, effecting an arrest, or making a traffic stop.

And that brings us to the subject of traffic stops.

While the Oakland Police Department was operating foot patrols in the commercial districts of downtown, Dimond, Montclair, Lakeshore, Rockridge, and Laurel (and my friends in those districts were rightfully complaining in the instances when those foot patrols were taken away), the department was conducting a different kind of patrol along the far eastern end of International Boulevard: Operation Impact.

In this program, the police department floods the streets not with patrols of foot officers trying to improve the safety of shoppers, but with rolling squads of cars whose sole purpose is to stop as many drivers as they can to give out tickets and find other various violations. These rolling “Operation Impact” squad patrols included Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers, and were originally instituted in East Oakland in the summer of 2003 supposedly to combat the area’s homicides and drug-related violence. The “Operation Impact” roving patrols continued into 2004, but by then their purpose had somehow changed—without a lot of explanation as to why—from stopping homicides to stopping Oakland’s sideshows.

(Just how ineffective the “Operation Impact” traffic patrol saturation may have been on homicides and drug-related violence was illustrated in an incident near 87th Avenue and International Boulevard last July, when a running gun battle took place in the afternoon between two cars for several blocks in full view of California Highway Patrol officers who had stopped a car along International—not for serious drug violations—but to give them a traffic ticket. The gun battlers were apparently undeterred by the fact that police officers were in the area.)

East Oakland’s “Operation Impact” was never (let us emphasize that word) designed to specifically investigate homicides, gang-related violence or, in its later form, the sideshows. No new homicide inspectors or officers with expertise in either gang violence or youth activities were either hired or trained under the program. Instead, “Operation Impact” was carried out something like a mechanic fixing a car with a hammer, its police department and Oakland City Hall advocates figuring that if enough cars were stopped for traffic violations along International Boulevard, criminals and sideshow participants in the adjoining neighborhoods would figure that “5-0” was in the area, and chill out.

That interesting theory was spelled out in Robert Gammon’s revealing May, 2005 article in the East Bay Express, when he wrote (after conducting several interviews with police officials and riding around with officers on “Operation Impact” patrol) that the joint OPD/Highway Patrol “anti-sideshow forces focus on traffic violations, reasoning that sideshows are far less likely to materialize if East Oakland motorists are constantly seeing cars being pulled over by police.” From January through May of 2005, Gammon reported that during their massive weekend traffic stops, the “Operation Impact” patrols had issued 5,000 traffic citations, towed 1,700 vehicles, and made 700 arrests. These statistics, according to Gammon, were racked up by 43 OPD officers and 16 CHP officers “who cruise the major East Oakland thoroughfares on weekend nights.”

How many of these 5,000 citations, 1,700 auto tows, and 700 arrests were justified by serious violations and how many of them were simple harassment that were done simply to justify the expenditure of police time on “Operation Impact?” It is impossible to tell by looking at the statistics. Having driven extensively in all parts of Oakland over the years, I can tell you that general traffic violations (speeding, running red lights, failure to stop for pedestrians) occur pretty much at the same rate in all parts of the city, irregardless of the ethnic or income makeup of the community. But we can use our deductive reasoning to come to another conclusion. Take 60 police officers and set them to stopping cars throughout the weekend in the “walking patrol” districts of Dimond, Montclair, Lakeshore, Rockridge, and Laurel using the same criteria that they are presently stopping cars in Deep East Oakland. See how long it would take before drivers, tired of such tactics, would choose to do their shopping elsewhere. And that, in fact, is what it has done along the far International corridor, turning into a virtual ghost town on many weekend nights, depressing commercial and social activity in an area that should be figuring a way to encourage more residents and spenders to come out.

All of this happened under the watch of Mayor Jerry Brown, who wants to take his various law-and-order theories to test them on the entire state of California as Attorney General. With Mr. Brown on the way out, let us hope that the next mayor—Nancy Nadel, Ignacio De La Fuente, or Ronald Dellums—takes a more even-handed approach to law enforcement in Oakland. If there are police foot patrols in the Dimond and Montclair, there ought to be police foot patrols at 90th and International. If random, massive traffic stops (which target neither homicides nor sideshows) are not appropriate for the Laurel, they shouldn’t be appropriate for Deep East Oakland, either.

Originally published January 6, 2006 in the Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper, Berkeley, California.