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

Portrait by John W. Pearson




February 29 , 2008

In one of the more hilarious scenes from Tim Burton’s 1996 parody film “Mars Attacks,” a group of invading Martians send a decidedly mixed message on an American street, broadcasting a recorded message shouting, “Don’t run; we are your friends” while simultaneously disintegrating with ray-gun blasts all humans within range.

This is not an accusation that Oakland police officers have been shooting down citizens with such gleeful abandon, because they haven’t. But still, the “Mars Attacks” scene in many ways echoes the decidedly mixed message given these days by Oakland’s public safety establishment in some of Oakland’s more abandoned neighborhoods.

Part of Mayor Ron Dellums’ and Chief Wayne Tucker’s new police recruitment plan is a strategy they call “grow our own,” heavily recruiting officers from within Oakland. In their official February 19 report on the plan, the mayor and the chief describe this area, in part, by saying that “the Mayor, City Council members, and Oakland residents call for an increase in the number of Oakland police officers from Oakland. Officers who have personal familiarity with Oakland's numerous and diverse neighborhoods are in a much better position to build positive community relationships, understand neighborhood dynamics, and identify creative problem solving strategies that may not be obvious to those who are not Oaklanders.”

In part, this is a response to longstanding charges that far too many Oakland police officers come from and live far outside the city, making the department’s actions in some parts of the city sometimes resemble an international peacekeeping force in a Third World nation more than a domestic police agency looking out for the welfare and safety of its own citizens.

To backup this drive of a new image of the Oakland police, department officials showed a PowerPoint slideshow at a recent City Council meeting with one OPD recruitment poster of a smiling little Black kid with an oversized police helmet on his head. “Don’t run from us, kid,” the poster seems to say. “Join us. We are your friends.”

The problem with this message is that in the current reorganization and drive against Oakland’s crime and violence wave, the department is continuing to promote and practice many of the activities that estranged it from large sections of the community in the first place.

At a recent community advisory meeting held in North Oakland by District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner, OPD Captain Anthony Toribio—who is heading up one of Oakland’s three new geographical divisions, announced that one of his law enforcement strategies would be to conduct “traffic ticketing sweeps” in his North Oakland-West Oakland command district. Given at the end of a long list of public safety strategies to a room full of citizens who were mostly looking for law enforcement solutions to soaring crime and violence, that particular innocuous-sounding strategy got no attention at all.

It should have, however.

I’ve written about Oakland PD’s “traffic ticketing sweeps” extensively in the past. I’ll try to summarize.

The sweeps are not aimed at such serious violations as speeding or DUI. Instead, they are designed to stop vehicles for minor, non-moving violations—an expired plate, or no plate on the front of the vehicle, or a tail light out, or something like that. The car driver is then asked for the regular information—license, registration, and insurance—and passengers are also often asked for their drivers licenses or other identification, as well. The idea is not to give out tickets for non-moving violations—that just seems to be an added financial benefit to the city—but is aimed at running across individuals with warrants, or chance observations of more serious illegalities going on such as drugs in the car, or a weapon in sight.

I am not sure how long the sweeps have been around, but they gained popularity during the “Operation Impact” police saturation project that began in 2003. “Operation Impact” and the accompanying traffic ticketing sweeps—many of them along International Boulevard from High Street to 105th—were initially supposed to be aimed at curbing that year’s spike in Oakland murders. When the murder rate subsided, “Operation Impact” and the traffic ticket sweeps were continued as a way to target the city’s illegal street sideshow problem.

That should have been the clue right there to any discerning observer that something was wrong, since a program aimed specifically at stopping violent predators would hardly seem appropriate to go after youthful joy-riders, no matter how annoying those joy-riders may have been. And, in fact, the only thing that appeared to be in common between the two targets is that they were largely made up of dark-skinned youth—Latinos and African-Americans.

How successful have the traffic ticketing sweeps been in ferreting out serious crime? In early 2004, the Oakland Tribune reported that in the first three months of the Operation Impact sweeps, which were conducted at that time by the California Highway Patrol, “the CHP arrested almost 600 people for various crimes [during the patrols], issued 1,564 traffic citations, towed 908 vehicles and seized six guns and 12 stolen cars.” The 600 arrest total is difficult to evaluate, but for a program initially designed to stop violent crime in Oakland, the seizure of only six guns out of that many arrests and 1,500 traffic citations appears to be the most telling statistic.

The 908 towed vehicles is another key. Towing vehicles, in fact, seemed to be one of the predictable outcomes of the traffic ticketing sweeps, so predictable, in fact, that on some of the more ambitious operations, police stationed squads of tow trucks at convenient locations up and down International for more efficiency.

From the point of view of the Oakland Police Department, this is clearly a legitimate law enforcement tool, one they continue to use.

But for the young African-American and Latino drivers who are the primary targets of the sweeps—does anybody seriously deny that?—the view is entirely different. For them, this appears to be petty harassment, designed to single them out in the hope of finding some violation that can justify taking the car, the drivers, and the passengers off the street.

Whether or not the traffic sweeps amount to illegal racial profiling is a matter of opinion that has yet to be litigated. But there can be no doubt that they operate at distinct cross-purposes to the very population that the mayor and OPD now say they are interested in attracting into law enforcement. To loudly proclaim “we are your friends” and “we want you to join us” to the same people you are running off the streets seems to be, at the very least, counterproductive.

Meanwhile, while I’m on the public safety topic, there are a couple of smaller matters to comment on and clear up.

In a February 26 column entitled “At Last, Community Policing Comes To Oakland,” my good friend, Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson, has praise for some of Oakland’s recent law enforcement efforts.

Describing Oakland’s new geographic-based police realignment, Mr. Johnson writes “the new program, which allows patrol officers to work in cooperation with the city's cadre of problem-solving officers and civilian aides, is long overdue. And after years of debate, city officials have concluded that it makes sense for officers to be assigned to districts they come to know like the back of their hand.” Mr. Johnson speaks glowingly of the efforts of Captain Anthony Toribio, who runs the Area 1 command (North Oakland-West Oakland) in the new configuration.

Well, who, exactly, are these anonymous “city officials” that Mr. Johnson refers to in his praise of the new Oakland police actions?

Mayor Ron Dellums, although Mr. Johnson never tells us so.

The geographical realignment plan was the brainchild of Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker, but it was given the go-ahead by Mr. Dellums. It was fought tooth and nail, you remember, by the Oakland Police Officers Association police union, which objected to the plan’s change from 10 hour to 12 hour shifts. Mr. Dellums stuck with the plan as it went through the negotiation and arbitration process, the first Oakland mayor in memory to openly buck the powerful OPOA, and the city won the arbitrator’s ruling that allowed the geographical alignment to be put in place, Captain Toribio to get his new assignment, and the neighborhood-based patrols to be established that won Mr. Johnson’s praise.

Fair is fair. Mr. Johnson spent many past columns denouncing Mr. Dellums’ law enforcement actions. When he finds an Oakland law enforcement action he approves, Mr. Johnson ought to give credit where it belongs.

And, finally, my own error to report. In a February 15th UnderCurrents column on Oakland’s attempt to close the “blue gap” between the city’s authorized police strength and its actual police strength, I wrote that “Councilmember Nancy Nadel’s 2004 Measure R parcel tax … [would have] raise[d] money for violence prevention exclusively.” “Exclusively” is the offending and inappropriate word, here about the measure that lost by a little less than a percentage point. Saying that Measure R only concentrated on violence prevention strategies contradicted my own earlier reporting on the measure, and it was flat-out wrong.

The Oakland City Attorney’s impartial analysis of Ms. Nadel’s 2004 volence prevention Measure R concluded that 40 percent of the collected revenue for the measure were set aside for police enforcement, including “expanding programs to increase the number of police assigned to walking patrol, expanding specialized undercover police sting operations to target crime hot-spots and target drug dealing and gang activities, expanding the Oakland Police Department's Drug Taskforce to combat drug dealing and violence associated with the drug trade, and establishing community-based specialist teams within the Oakland Police Department trained to deal with mental health, domestic violence, and conflict resolution.”

Don’t mind disagreements with my conclusions, but I hate it like hell when I make a factual error. My apologies to Ms. Nadel, particularly, for misreporting on her measure.

[Note: this column has been modified slightly from the original posting to correct the fact that a quote from Chip Johnson's column was mistakenly repeated in the same paragraph.]

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