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What’s it like to manage the Oakland Police Department?

Kyung Jin Lee
OPD Assistant Chief, Paul Figueroa

It’s been almost a year  since former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan -- then, his replacement -- abruptly resigned.

“It happened very quickly,” says Paul Figueroa, current interim assistant chief. “I can tell you that none of us expected it.”

Figueroa was a captain running the police academy when he got a call from the new interim chief, Sean Whent, wanting to promote him. Figueroa said yes.

“To be asked to step into this role is a big honor,” he says. “It's great time of need in the city and department.”

Now instead of training recruits, he’s deploying them. While city leaders continue their search for a permanent chief, he’s doing his best to increase community trust and reduce crime. His work is attracting notice -- the San Francisco Chronicle recently named him one of the Bay Area’s people to watch in 2014.

These days, the 19-year OPD veteran attends a lot of meetings. We’re sitting at his 8th floor office in downtown Oakland, reviewing his weekly calendar.

“Mondays, we have an executive staff meeting at 9 a.m. where I meet with the chief,” he starts, looking down the list. “Then biweekly senior commanders meeting is different than the crime update. ... Once a week, we meet to talk about the benchmarks with the federal compliance plan. ... Then this week we had a racial profiling committee.”

This list doesn’t even include the community and public safety meetings he also attends regularly. And while we’re talking, OPD’s public information officer comes in to let him know he’s got another one. Right now.

He’ll skip it, but he tries not to do that too often. All in all, Figueroa says he easily works around 15 hours a day, plus Saturdays. He’s still trying to get used to the pace of the job. But as demanding as it is, “I temper that with the tremendous honor that it is,” he says. “I think everyone knows that this job, as many jobs at the police department, is so integral to our response to violence. That that's really where the energy comes from. This stuff has to get done.”

Promoting the positive

We head down to the auditorium for the day’s first event -- an awards ceremony honoring exemplary officers.

One officer gets an award for going out of his way to help a young man change his life around.

Capt. Rick Orozco introduces the awardee, Lt. Randell Wingate.

“Lt. Wingate took the necessary steps to get [the young man] into junior college,” says Orozco. “Lt. Wingate personally relocated him and paid for expenses. Lt. Wingate supported his academics by proofreading his papers and offering guidance. The young man is now a sophomore with a 3.33 GPA.”

It’s no secret that OPD has a bad rap in certain parts of Oakland. Last year, the department’s internal affairs division got more than 1,500 complaints.  

But Figueroa says, no one tracks stories like this, where officers try to help.

“That's probably one of the most frustrating things for me in this position,” he says.

Out in the field

As we head into the police garage, Figueroa spots Orozco leaving for the field. He asks Orozco what’s going on, and learns of a burglary attempt where an officer has been hit by a car.

We get on the road and head towards the crime scene in East Oakland’s lower Diamond district -- a diverse, mixed-income area. I ask abouta recent report showing that the department arrests young black men at a disproportionately high rate.

Figueroa says he’s seen the study, and the stats aren’t unique to Oakland. He says other major cities, like New York, deal with similar situations.

“The chief and I both believe that there is disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system for people of color,” he says. “We are very concerned about that and we want to be part of a solution that looks at the holistic approach to lowering that number in the criminal justice system.”

We’re arrive at the corner of Harold and Boston streets, just a few blocks from Farmer Joe’s market. The incident commander debriefs Figueroa. The officer was not seriously hurt by the car; just grazed.

Once Figueroa assesses the situation, we head south towards the Fruitvale district.  

“Everyone’s okay,” says Figueroa, adding, “injuries aren't the only trauma that officers and community members face. It's the lasting impact of whatever the incident takes place. If it's a shooting or getting hit by a car, that's still very violent act on their part.”  

Community roots

We hear Mexican folk music as we drive through the Fruitvale.  These streets are familiar to Figueroa -- he was born and raised in these parts and still has strong connections here.

“We're going to pass St. Elizabeth High on the left and the church on the left as well,” he points out. “I was an altar boy there for a lot of years. The elementary school will be on your right.”

He actually decided to become a cop came because of his experience growing up.

“My best friend's dad was killed,” he recalls. “I was 10 or 11.”

He still remembers how the officers handled the case.

“They were concerned, they were clearly competent,” he says. “They took a suspect into custody pretty quickly. And they exuded integrity to me. I was so impressed with that.”

We park and head into the elementary school. As Figueroa shows me around the campus, he acknowledges the negative feelings many community members have towards the police.

“I completely understand that,” he says. “Sometimes rightfully so. And we have to own that when that happens, when we haven't performed like we should.”

He knows the department has to take the first step to improve relationships. At the same time, though, he says trust building is a two-way street.

“Police officers are human beings,” he says. “We need to know we're cared and valued by the community as well. It's really the long-term fix between the police and community. I believe we have to take the first step.”

The view from the other side

A few blocks from St. Elizabeth elementary sits the Unity Council, a 50-year-old Fruitvale community institution.

“We call him Fig,” Sofia Navarro, the group’s chief operating officer, says of Figueroa.

“Usually with officers, [we have contact] when something happens,” she says. “I see something different in Paul in that I can tell as an individual, he really cares about making a difference in Oakland.”

Navarro’s worked with Figueroa for almost five years, doing outreach to the undocumented community and getting more bilingual officers into the neighborhood. She says even though it’s been a while since Figueroa worked in this area regularly, he’s taken time to do what he can.

For example, back when he ran the police academy, he invited her and a colleague to address new recruits, “to make sure that we were bringing the issues of the community to the new recruits and they were familiar and understood the cultural differences,” Navarro says.

But, she says, there’s only so much Figueroa can do.

“Our community unfortunately,” she says, “has felt that when they report, their statement is, ‘What's the point of reporting when no one's going to show up and address the issues.’”

Pastor Billy Dixon Jr. was born and raised in deep East Oakland. He knows from personal experience about police/community tension in this part of town.

“I was pulled over,” he recalls. “The first thing he asked is, ‘Who car is this? Where you get this car from?’ I’m like, don’t you mean license and proof of insurance, registration? He asked, ‘Where you going?’ I just thought he was not professional. He treated me like I wasn’t supposed to have a car like that.”

But Dixon says he’s had more good experiences with Oakland officers than bad. And despite their limited resources, things are starting to change at OPD.

“When has Oakland ever had cops riding bikes in deep East Oakland,” he asks. “Never had that before.”

Still, Dixon says, bikes aren’t enough.

“Even if they arrest somebody, we have to know they did it in good faith,” he says. “That this is not nothing they’re just doing to try and throw young men in jail, but it’s a good faith arrest and that we submit to their authority because they’re right.”

Looking ahead

Back at St. Elizabeth elementary, Figueroa says the department and the city have a plan to get more officers on the street. He says they’re putting special emphasis on recruiting from Oakland. And overall, the department is starting to show results.

While robberies have gone up, homicides plummeted by 30 percent in 2013, compared to the year before.

Figueroa’s pleased. But, he concedes, “We still have more work to do.”

And he says, he’ll be there to do it.

Crosscurrents Public SafetyOakland