DAVID ZLUTNICK, PRODUCER, TRNN: The city of Oakland recently hired famed police chief William Bratton as a consultant in an effort to find a solution to its ongoing problems with its own police department. Bratton is supposed to assist OPD improve its crime-fighting operations, but is entering a department with a pattern of resisting reform.
Since 2003, the police force has been under what is known as a federal consent decree to bring it up to national standards. The decree stems from a notorious case where a group of OPD officers calling themselves the “Riders” were found to have kidnapped, planted evidence, and beaten West Oakland residents, resulting in a legal settlement mandating reforms to improve the department’s means of internal accountability, training, and use of force.
ALI WINSTON, JOURNALIST: And the Oakland Police Department has failed over the past ten years to fulfil the reform requirements that were set out by the negotiated settlement agreement. So they’re running the risk right now of falling under full federal control, which has never happened to a law enforcement agency before.
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Ali Winston has been reporting on OPD for several years. He says the department has numerous problems that have resulted in a police force unable to adequately serve the city of Oakland. One issue OPD has is staffing, due to budget shortfalls Winston attributes largely to an inflated pay scale for officers. The loss of around 185 officers in the last three years has stretched the force too thin to be effective even without the other issues OPD must address.
Winston: One of the other problems that the Oakland Police Department is faced with is its inability to solve violent crime. In 2011, the Oakland Police Department solved only 29 percent of the homicides that took place in the city that year.
Zlutnick: That’s compared with a California statewide average of 63.8 percent. This again goes back to a budget and staffing problem which leaves homicide detectives overworked, managing around 30 cases when the state average is only 5. This has only added to a historic lack of public trust in OPD within communities that have often felt both the brunt of police abuses as well as the worst of violent crime, the latter of which is now on the rise.
Also troubling about OPD’s current operations is the ongoing lack of accountability and internal monitoring, which is at the core of the consent decree. Many observers believe that the most important reforms that were to be undertaken through the consent decree have largely been ignored.
WILSON RILES JR., FMR. OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: The items that would make the most difference in terms of having the officers on the streets be accountable and the supervisors be accountable for what they’re doing, that’s not happened.
RASHIDAH GRINAGE, PEOPLE UNITED FOR A BETTER LIFE IN OAKLAND: The internal affairs process has generally been seen as either incompetent or corrupt, or a combination of both.
Winston: This has been one of the areas of the federal reforms where they’ve consistently fallen behind and been called out for that by the independent court monitor. In the latest progress report, the police department was actually found to have regressed. So they backslid quite a bit for not properly investigating incidents of misconduct, which is again at the heart of the consent decree.
Zlutnick: Stephen Downing, a retired Deputy Chief with the Los Angeles Police Department, now with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, insists that accountability must be made a priority in any department, and that it must be held at all levels of the force.
STEPHEN DOWNING, LAPD DEPUTY CHIEF (RET.): You have to be able to look at the process of investigation. Who’s doing the investigation? How thorough is that investigation conducted? If they find in Oakland they don’t have the competence to do that, then when you talk about accountability, it starts and stops at the top.
Grinage: We believe that far too long this city has allowed this department to run itself, that the department is in many ways autonomous, that city leaders are either unwilling or unable to control it.
Zlutnick: After many years with little progress, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who is overseeing the federal consent decree, demanded there be some movement toward improvement. But instead of placing OPD under control of a federal receiver, he brokered a new agreement wherein Oakland must hire a “compliance director” to ensure the institution of reforms.
Winston: Their role will be to oversee the reforms and really push the department to get them to come to full compliance with these reforms, which are really best practices for police departments in the 21st century.
Zlutnick: It is within this context that William Bratton is being hired as a consultant to the department. Bratton is regarded as a celebrity within the law enforcement community and is known for his time leading the police in New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston. He comes in as part of a $250,000 consulting contract with Strategic Policy Partnership, a private law enforcement advisory firm.
In addition to overseeing LAPD in its emergence from under its own consent decree, Bratton is credited with producing a substantial decrease in violent crime during his time in New York and L.A. through his advocacy of an aggressive approach in searching out and halting even minor crimes. His measures have resulted in allegations of civil rights violations, racial profiling, and over-incarceration, and his defense of tough-on-crime policies have earned him much criticism nationally, and in Oakland as well. When the city council was debating whether to approve his contract, hundreds of Oakland residents packed the hearings to show their opposition to his methods of policing.
RILES: Everybody wants there to be a reduction in crime, but there have been two competing philosophies. One is that the way to do that is to arrest as many people as possible and throw them in jail—or under the jail, as some people would wish, so they would never come back. And other folks want to look at what the root causes of crime is and begin to put some resources at addressing some of the root causes.
Zlutnick: Despite much resistance to Bratton’s hiring, the City Council voted to bring him on, albeit in a much diminished role. The Oakland Police Department did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but from public statements it seems Bratton will not serve as the public face of Oakland’s attempts at police reform, but instead work behind the scenes. Many, however, still question exactly what Bratton will bring to OPD to warrant his six-figure contract.
Winston: The city said that Bratton will actually concentrate more on helping officers in the department, you know, improve their response to violent crime. He’s going to work on computerized crime-tracking software called CompStat, which OPD’s actually been using for some years now. And I’m not really sure how he’s going to improve their response to that, because he’s not going to change the understaffing issue which underpins the Oakland Police Department’s ability to respond to violent crime.
Zlutnick: Instead of crime-solving solutions and serious police reforms, critics such as Grinage and Riles believe the city administration has a more short-term goal in mind.
RILES: How can they get out from under the court situation as quickly as they can? So they’re not serious about putting together a long-range strategy to deal with crime.
Winston: I think Bill Bratton’s name is one of the reasons why he was hired by the department. And the thing is that Oakland’s already spent over $1 million on consultants to come into compliance with the consent decree over the past year, in 2012. That’s not counting Bill Bratton’s contract. So they’re going through a stage right now where they’re trying to buy the best advice possible because they’re really desperate to stave off receivership. And, you know, they may say that Bill Bratton is being brought in for crime-fighting policies, but given his experience with the consent decree I think it’s hard to look at him as anything other than a consultant for trying to get them into a better position than they’re in right now with these federal reforms.
Zlutnick: And for the Oakland Police Department a better position is almost anywhere but where it finds itself now. But aside from Bratton’s hiring, former LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing doesn’t believe much will change in terms of the department’s relationship to Oakland’s most marginalized communities as long as larger policies are maintained that reinforce aggressive behavior by officers.
Downing: They drug policy of our nation has done a lot of damage to the concept of a “peace officer” in local law enforcement. The federal government is giving grants to local police departments, and they get it by getting numbers. And the drug enforcement scene is 90 percent of our problem when it comes to street contact with people, shaking people down, lying in court about their probable cause time after time after time. And what is the objective? The objective is drugs.
Zlutnick: For the Oakland Police Department what remains to be seen is if community outrage during William Bratton’s vetting process will mute the institution of his policy prescriptions, or if his tough-on-crime tactics that have already enraged impacted communities will increase during his upcoming tenure in Oakland.
For The Real News Network, this is David Zlutnick reporting from Oakland, California.