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After 15 years of false starts, Oakland puts hope into a new community policing plan

Kyung Jin Lee

West Oakland’s Alex Miller-Cole has decided that he can’t depend on the police for help.

“Mead Avenue was the second worst street in all of Oakland,” he says. “All the neighbors have been mulching. We planted 75 trees. Now it’s the cleanest street ever. Nothing happens here now.”

Miller-Cole’s lived across the street from McClymonds High School for 13 years. For the first five, he says he and his husband called the police on a daily basis to report things like prostitution and gunshots. But more often than not, the police wouldn’t do anything. So they came up with their own way to deal with the problem.

“We started getting to know our neighbors, getting more involved in their lives,” he says. “All of a sudden you know why a prostitute is a prostitute. You know why the boys are selling drugs on the corner. And you can maybe try to influence their lives differently.”

Miller-Cole doesn’t think what he’s doing is that radical. He just doesn’t think he should be the only one doing it. To him, it’s what police officers are supposed to do.

“If police came to my door, introduce himself. Next door, oh, you have three kids? Great, thank you. That’s community policing – that you know the face of those guys. You’d feel so much more comfortable.”

What he’s describing is community policing. And it’s been the official police philosophy in Oakland since 1996. Rather than police simply responding to crime after it happens, city leaders embraced the idea of preventing crime from happening in the first place -- by putting police on the streets even when there’s not an emergency.

An official philosophy, though, isn’t always the same as what’s actually happening.

In the beginning

City leaders had the best intentions for Oakland when they came up with a community policing plan back in the mid ‘90s. They created 57 neighborhood beats to help build relationships among community institutions, residents and a designated police officer. In each one, city-funded coordinators managed neighborhood crime prevention councils, or NCPCs. Regular council meetings brought everyone together to work out local crime issues.

Jose Dorado lives in East Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood and took to the idea right away. 

“In my view, very clear it takes neighborhood action to improve the health and safety of a neighborhood,” he says. “The idea of the neighborhood coming together, but also as a partner of OPD and city to address these problems makes perfect sense to me.”

Each neighborhood council figured out the top three issues they wanted their community police officer to work on. But already there was a problem: those community officers were hard to come by. Chronic understaffing of the Oakland Police Department was an issue even back then, and officers resisted doing what they saw as “social work.” 

“You're completely changing an identity of the police department,” says Captain Ricardo Orozco, a 26-year veteran of the force. “Now you have to go to community meetings. And there was reluctance.”

Orozco says when he first started, there was no emphasis on community engagement. But law enforcement in general was changing, and over time, so did OPD.

“I could honestly say I've seen the transformation of this police dept,” he says. “I like meeting with the community, I like hearing the community and helping. It's reinforced a lot of things of why you get into policing to help.”

Planning for the long term

Still, if it wanted to keep community policing officers, the city needed stable funding. So in 2004, Oaklanders passed Measure Y. It mandated a minimum of 739 officers, and included funding for those community problem-solving officers.

Not everything went smoothly. The program faced initial criticisms for poor management. A local attorney even sued the city for allegedly misusing the funds. But in 2008, the tides started to change. Orozco remembers building trust with the Latino community around Fruitvale by posting a Spanish-speaking officer near the BART station, who people could approach to report crimes.

“I thought it was a success because it was something the merchants and the community asked for and we provided,” says Orozco. “It broke down some barriers for the community and also for the officers.”

Around the city, violent crime rates began dropping. But in 2010, Oakland faced a fiscal crisis and the council slashed the city budget. The city laid off 80 officers and cut other resources that supported community policing. And once again crime rates began to spike. 

Improving communication

Over the next two years, murder rates jumped by almost 30 percent. Robberies went up 40 percent, and burglaries more than 50 percent. And those neighborhood councils found themselves taking on more public safety work. But many activists say communication and coordination has been an ongoing problem. West Oakland’s Alex Miller-Cole says he didn’t even know the city had a community policing plan for many years after he began organizing his neighborhood.

“I had to invent my own map, my own structure to do community policing when there was already all this stuff and no one shared it with me,” he says. 

There is a group that’s supposed to do that sharing: the Community Police Advisory Board, or CPAB. It’s charged to serve as a watchdog for the city’s community policing efforts. But activists say it’s been largely ineffective for about five years. John Garvey is a board member and says part of the problem is police turnover. 

"We’ve had five chiefs in five years,” he says. “It keeps changing so it’s very difficult to evaluate and make recommendations on something in which you’re not really clear what it is. So Anthony Batts, Chief Batts’ version of community policing is really different than what we’re seeing today.”

Former Oakland police chief Anthony Batts promoted citizen partnerships with police to deal with the kinds of social issues that drive crime rates up. But Batts also removed officers from community policing beats so they could focus on violent crimes. As a result, there are fewer problem-solving officers on the neighborhood beats today.

What now?

So what does community policing mean now? For some activists, it means having the police be directly accountable to the neighborhood councils, which many say represent the city’s politically savvy homeowner base. For others, it means engaging with youth and building relationships with communities that have traditionally distrusted the police -- in other words, the people most likely to be arrested. 

Board member John Garvey says numerous plans and studies have looked at how to reduce crime. But it’s hard to know what success looks like. 

“We have a lot of things but not a lot of metrics to measure how much of it we’re getting and how effective it is,” says Garvey. “We have a lot of good ideas but how much are we doing and how to measure effectiveness?”

At a CPAB meeting this past spring, consultant Robert Wasserman rolled out a new plan for OPD. The city recently hired him and former police chief William Bratton to help overhaul their crime prevention strategies. 

In his assessment, Wasserman said there are many Oakland officers who are committed to building partnerships with the community.

“We have to figure out how to get neighbors to say we’re going to join and make a difference,” he told people at the meeting.

Wasserman then rolled out a new geographic organization strategy.  The police breaks down the two previous districts into five smaller “areas,” and makes sure that beat officers stay in the neighborhoods they’re assigned.

“Every district of the community will have a police captain in charge of the district, and accountable for the quality of the policing, the relationships with the community and the effectiveness of the strategies being used,” he said.

The plan launched in June. A few months in, the area captains reported back to the city council’s public safety committee on how the new strategy’s working.

Citywide, total crime numbers are flat compared to last year. Murders and burglaries are down, but robberies are up. 

OPD captain Ricardo Orozco reported on his two top priorities: robberies and prostitution. He said he’s got officers walking the beat who offer services to the women, and mentioned community partnerships he thinks are working. 

“One benefit I have seen with the community is the dear john letter writing campaign,” said Orozco. “Where they are writing down license plate numbers and proving that info to us. And we’re sending letters out to the registered owners of the vehicle and basically telling them they were seen in an area known for prostitution.” 

Everyone acknowledges more needs to be done. But the mood is cautiously optimistic. 

Crosscurrents PolicingOakland