Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




June 15, 2007

Five months into his mayoral administration, is Ron Dellums Oakland's major problem?

Given the vehemence with which the new mayor is being attacked in certain Oakland circles, one would certainly think so.

Last week, Mr. Dellums took a stroll in the Fruitvale to talk to residents and activists about problems they are facing, and then to meet at the Bridges Academy to listen to and answer specific policy suggestions. Granted, the trip got a little over the top at times, with cameras and reporters and city staff and security all crowding the street along International Boulevard, but maybe that was the point of it. Mr. Dellums brought attention to a section of Oakland that, perhaps, does not get enough of it.

After reporter Angela Woodall wrote an article on the event in the Oakland Tribune ("Officials Get Earful At Fruitvale March", June 9), you would think that most readers who disagreed with Mr. Dellums' policies would use the online comment section to advance some policies of their own. Instead, most took the opportunity to attack Mr. Dellums for, well, being Mr. Dellums.

Some examples:

From someone named "Anonymous": "Dellums is all talk and no action. Just a bunch of 'Believe' garbage. Well Dellums, I believe you will run Oakland into the toilet with your do nothing attitude. Months into your administration and you still don't have a solid plan."

From someone named "Action": "Dellum [sic] sucks. He is all rhetoric like his campaign slogans. He has not done a thing since he has been in office. We can all be mayor doing what he is doing. At least ex-mayor Brown brought development into the area. There is absolutely nothing new or exciting happening in Oakland since Dellum [sic] has been in office. The guy is too old and is use [sic] to being bogged down by bureaucracy like when he was in Washington. He has a committee for everything but no solution whatsoever."

And from someone signed "Didn't Vote For Dellums": "Dellums doesn't want to work 24/7, he needs bodyguards, he needs more staff and he wants to spend 1 million dollars to upgrade his office...Yeah, that is the way to fix Oakland's problems."

There was more, much more, but I think you get the point.

Part of this criticism stems from ignorance, and by that I use the original "not knowing" meaning of the word, rather than the "dumb" or "stupid" way it has come to be used. The Dellums Administration has, in fact, been doing quite a bit in its first five months. In the area of development, the Community & Economic Development Agency (CEDA) has done two specific things at Mr. Dellums' instruction: (1) begun the conformation of the city's Zoning Code to the General Plan which was halted under Jerry Brown, and (2) put a moratorium on conversion of Oakland's dwindling industrial-zoned parcels to mixed-use. Neither of these is "new and exciting," of course, unless you are the type of person who understands the construction and development process enough to know that the foundation work is always necessary in order for the building(s) to eventually go up. A few well-connected developers came out big-time under Mr. Brown's virtually unregulated zoning policies, true. But most developers, and neighborhood residents as well, like the idea that they will soon have a clear notion of what kinds of developments can be put where in Oakland, with no nasty surprises as they have now. And the moratorium on industrial land conversion to housing was absolutely necessary for those interested in bringing more jobs to Oakland for Oakland residents. If you don't believe me, just ask Councilmember Nancy Nadel, who has been fighting for this for years, and in whose West Oakland district most of the city's industrial-zoned land resides.

Meanwhile, there are certainly legitimate policy concerns to talk about involving the Dellums Administration. So let's talk about them. One of them is the issue of crime and police protection, which dominated so much of the concern and discussion during Mr. Dellums' recent visit to the Fruitvale.

The hiring of Wayne Tucker as Chief of Police was one of the best decisions of the old Brown Administration, and keeping Mr. Tucker in his job was one of the most sensible actions of the new Dellums Administration. Mr. Tucker has brought a blend of professionalism, leadership, and maturity to the job that was lacking under his predecessor, Richard Word, who was a nice man, a good man, but a man over his head in the Oakland chief's job. Still, change in Oakland Police Department policies has been slow in coming under Mr. Tucker.

One of OPD's worst policies in the old Brown/Word days was treating the flatlands of the DEO (Deep East Oakland, from High Street to the San Leandro border) almost like occupied territory, and those policies have, unfortunately, largely continued under the administration of Dellums/Tucker.

An example? While you're reading about the incident below, think about how many times in a week you see a police vehicle stop in the City of Oakland in the course of a week. Once? Twice? Never? More? Depends on where you drive and live.

I live not far from Allen Temple Baptist Church, on a residential street just off of International, and in the middle of a quiet Sunday afternoon earlier this month, I was clearing out weeds in my front yard while a series of rolling police vehicle stops took place within a four block area in front of my house.

As I came out, police officers in two patrol cars had stopped a vehicle with a young African-American driver about a half a block away. They took the driver out of his car, put him in handcuffs, put him in one of the patrol cars, and then proceded to search his car.

As I stood there watching, a green-colored Oakland police car-presumably, by the color, one of the park police who sometimes come down in our neighborhood to do street patrol duty-pulled over a second car about a block away in the other direction.

Two traffic stops simultaneously within two blocks in a residential neighborhood? Not unusual for the DEO. But it didn't stop there.

Don't know why the first car was stopped and searched, or the driver handcuffed, but the officers searching the first car apparently found nothing of interest, because they took the driver out of the patrol car, took off his handcuffs, and let him go.

As he was driving away, a van went past the two patrol cars-with no license plate on the back-and one of the officers got in his patrol car pulled it over directly in front of my house.

While that was happening another police car-perhaps the other of the two that made the first stop, though I'm not sure because I was busy watching the stop in front of my house-came down the street past my house and pulled over a fourth car just past the car stopped by the green police car.
Four car stops, within fifteen minutes, within a four block stretch of a residential neighborhood. Not long afterwards, the officers let all of the remaining cars drive away. This was not "sideshow" activity. Nobody was doing donuts, and there apparently wasn't the type of reckless driving violation (California Vehicle Code 23103) to warrant arrests or auto tows. Within a few minutes, all of the vehicles, and the officers, were gone.

Why, then, is this important enough to write about?

Because such saturated traffic enforcement is a way of life out here in Deep East Oakland, a method of ongoing law enforcement that is not practiced in many of Oakland's other neighborhoods.

This is not accidental. You can go for hours out here not seeing a single patrol car and then, suddenly, you will see them in packs, cruising up and down International Boulevard. OPD black-and-whites and green-and-whites, Alameda County Sheriff's deputies, and California Highway Patrols.

They do not appear to be targeting the area's open-air drug markets-some of which have been operating in the same location for decades-or going after other serious crimes. Instead, from casual observation, they appear to be merely a massive traffic patrol. It is not unusual during these traffic patrol saturation periods to see two or more traffic stops as you drive the 60 blocks along International between High Street and the San Leandro border, and often there are more. Sometimes, so sure police officials are that many of these stops are going to result in auto tows, you see tow trucks parked at strategic locations along International during these times, ready to go into action.

Does this type of traffic patrol saturation happen in other parts of Oakland? I don't know. But the saturation patrols began following the heyday of Operation Impact a few years ago, the city program that put scores of officers from several agencies into Oakland's "sideshow zone," the DEO, with the specific tactic of making saturated traffic stops.

What is the purpose of these saturated traffic patrols? Is it getting dangerous drivers off the street? Is it stopping "sideshows"? Are the stops being made in the hope that something seriously illegal might actually turn up because of them-a gun or a bag of dope visible on the front seat, maybe, or a bench warrant on one of the passengers? Is it a self fulfilling program, meaning that if you put enough patrols cars out in the street and tell them to look for traffic violations, they will generally find a certain number of traffic violations, the program then justifying itself? I don't have an answer to these questions, partly because Oakland police and political officials have given several different reasons at different times.

What bothers me most, however, is that in the Deep East Oakland, at least, the drivers being stopped are young Latinos and African-Americans, with the predictable result that the policy of traffic patrol saturation is creating a new generation that resents the police and believes they are being harassed and profiled simply because of their race. This is the same pool from which the Oakland Police Department is currently seeking to draw recruits in order to create a new OPD that reflects more reflects the race, ethnicity, and sensibilities of the city it is patrolling. It seems that the two policies are at cross-purposes.

That's why I was worried about Mr. Dellums' announcement at the Bridges Academy meeting that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed to send more California Highway Patrol officers into Oakland streets to do routine traffic patrol so that OPD officers can be freed to do work on more serious crime. It is the Highway Patrol officers who have often been the most zealous in pulling off these saturated traffic stops.

I hope that this gets more discussion both inside and outside of City Hall.

It is policy issues like this, it would seem, that we should be talking about. Calling Mr. Dellums a do-nothing mayor at this stage seems silly. He appears to be doing a lot, some of which I like, some of which I don't.