Armed robbers terrorized Oakland restaurants and small businesses in three separate crime sprees over the past year. The first wave targeted Asian eateries and struck during the 2007 holiday season. The second arrived last spring and was more indiscriminate. The third struck in July and August. All three made newspaper headlines and led television newscasts, shining a spotlight on the city’s out-of-control crime problem and the Oakland Police Department’s apparent inability to cope with it. In fact, the department’s public response to the takeover robberies was both odd and illuminating.
The department’s mantra for dealing with the city’s crime spike has been: “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” Top brass has repeated this declaration in public meetings or whenever a reporter was within earshot, as if it were a common sense, widely accepted response to this sort of crisis. “Right now, it’s pretty clear we are in a time of increased crime,” said Deputy Police Chief Dave Kozicki, just before he summed up the department’s official response to the Oakland City Council in April. “But the bottom line is we believe we cannot arrest our way out of these problems.”
So instead of employing old-fashioned detective work to solve the restaurant robberies and arrest criminals, the department doubled down on a policing philosophy that it has employed repeatedly in recent years. It beefed up patrols and focused on so-called “hot spots.” But this time it targeted the city’s upscale shopping districts — and not the violent flatlands of West and East Oakland. It was an attempt at crime suppression, the security-guard approach to policing that the department successfully used to quell the sideshows several years ago. It’s based on the premise that criminals are less likely to offend if they see a police car driving by. During the third crime spree, Mayor Ron Dellums even invited the Guardian Angels, a national vigilante group, to march around commercial districts in their red berets.
Yet the crime waves persisted, much like crime overall has remained at historically high levels in Oakland during the past three years. Then something interesting happened. Each crime wave abruptly ended when police arrested the perpetrators. It turned out that the department could arrest its way out of the problem after all. Each time police put the criminals behind bars, the takeover robberies stopped, the screaming headlines and breathless newscasts ended, and public fear faded away. People started patronizing restaurants again.
A closer look at the Oakland Police Department’s response to the overall spike in violent crime that began three years ago reveals an agency with a policing philosophy that appears to have exacerbated the city’s problems. An analysis of crime statistics by this newspaper reveals that Oakland’s police department has the worst record in recent years among large cities statewide for solving violent crimes and homicides. In fact, Oakland’s violent crime rate skyrocketed after the agency’s ability to capture violent criminals fell off a cliff.
Oakland police once had a strong record for solving violent crimes and homicides, but during the three years since Police Chief Wayne Tucker took over the department it has solved less than one-quarter of the violent crimes and homicides in the city, according to figures from the state Department of Justice. The steep decline actually began under Tucker’s predecessor Richard Word, and has worsened since 2005. And once the department’s record for capturing criminals and putting them behind bars plummeted, the number of violent crimes citywide jumped sharply — 27 percent from 2005 through 2007 compared to the previous three years — far outpacing other large California cities.
Part of the problem is that Oakland’s investigative unit is drastically understaffed. And the defeat last month of Measure NN — a parcel tax that would have paid for 180 new police personnel — will limit the department’s ability to significantly expand its investigative staff anytime soon. But interviews and public records also show that there is much more to the department’s crime-solving woes than a lack of investigators. Over the past few years, the Oakland Police Department has not made investigating crimes and capturing criminals a top priority — even as the city’s crime rate soared to its highest level since the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Oakland’s homicide clearance rate — that is, the percentage of killings that the department solves — used to be impressive for a city with a lot of crime. From 1997 through 2000, it averaged 58 percent. But under Tucker, it has been abysmal. In 2005, his first year as police chief, the department solved only 12 of its 93 homicides, a clearance rate of just 13 percent. By comparison, the homicide clearance rates of other large California cities, such as Fresno, Long Beach, Sacramento, and San Francisco have remained fairly steady over the past decade.
From 2005 through 2007, the last year in which complete data is available, Oakland police only solved 86 homicides out of 357 total, or just 24 percent. In other words, since Tucker took command of the department, the perpetrators responsible for more than three-quarters of the killings in Oakland remain at large. “You want to get those folks off the street,” said Franklin Zimring, a criminal justice professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law. “Twenty-four percent is very low.”
By comparison, San Francisco has cleared 45 percent of its homicide cases in the past three years; Long Beach, 52 percent; Fresno, 67 percent; and Sacramento, 70 percent. The Express compared Oakland to those cities because they are the four closest in California in terms of population and demographics. The four cities also have similar homicide rates, although all are lower than Oakland’s. We excluded Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose, the state’s three most populous cities, because they’re so much larger than Oakland and because both San Diego and San Jose have much lower violent crime rates.
Overall, the nationwide homicide clearance rate has hovered around 60 percent for many years. According to FBI uniform crime reporting rules, police agencies can’t call a case “cleared” or solved unless they make an arrest and charges are filed. Exceptions include when a perpetrator dies before he’s apprehended, a prime witness recants testimony after an arrest, or a suspect has fled the jurisdiction and cannot be extradited.
Clearance rates are not only good indicators of how well a police agency investigates and solves crimes but they’re also strong predictors of future spikes or dips in crime. “Investigative work, the search for and arrest of perpetrators of past crimes, is also one of the most effective ways to prevent future crimes,” Patrick Harnett, a former high-ranking official in the New York City Police Department, wrote in a study about the Oakland Police Department in late 2006. Harnett, who was commissioned by former Mayor Jerry Brown, believes that putting criminals behind bars stops them from committing more crimes and leads to a lower crime rate, while the failure to catch them leads to a higher crime rate.
In Oakland, the numbers support Harnett’s assertion. During the past decade, whenever the city’s clearance rate has declined, homicides have gone up the following year, and vice versa. In fact, during the past decade, every time the department’s clearance rate decreased by at least 5 percent from the previous year, the number of homicides increased the following year. And every time the clearance rate improved by at least 5 percent from the previous year, the number of killings dropped the following year. This phenomenon occurred seven times in the past eleven years.
After Oakland’s ability to solve crime started to worsen, the number of killings in the city jumped sharply. From 2005 through 2007, Oakland averaged 119 homicides a year compared to an average of 87 from 1997 through 2004. Last year, the city had 119 homicides and is on track to exceed that number this year.
Oakland’s clearance rate also has declined for all violent crimes over the past decade, and is lower than other large California cities. From 2005 through 2007, it was just 24 percent, while San Francisco’s was 27 percent; Sacramento, 39 percent; Long Beach, 48 percent; and Fresno, 49 percent. Violent crimes include homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults. The number of violent crimes in Oakland also has jumped dramatically in the past two years, and now is nearly as high it was in the mid-1990s. Of the other four cities, only Sacramento experienced a similar recent increase.
So what’s going on in Oakland? In an interview last week, Oakland’s Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan rejected a linkage between the department’s declining clearance rates and skyrocketing crime, and instead blamed several other factors. Jordan oversees the department’s entire investigations bureau. Increased crime, he said, has been caused by myriad societal problems, from the downturn in the economy, to the city’s poor school system, and the high number of ex-felons living in Oakland. “We have a high concentration of parolees and people on probation in the city,” he noted.
As for the declining clearance cases, he blamed the no-snitching culture of today’s youth. “We have a very, very difficult time convincing people to talk to police,” he said. “It makes it very difficult for us to solve cases.” Jordan also criticized the FBI’s definition of clearances, saying that internally, the department also considers a case cleared when it has identified a prime suspect, but doesn’t have enough evidence for an arrest and conviction. However, those types of “clearances” are not allowed under FBI rules.
But Jordan’s explanations don’t hold up under scrutiny. Refusing to snitch is not a problem unique to Oakland. Plus, other police agencies also are prohibited from calling a no-arrest case “cleared” and their clearance rates are better than Oakland’s. Moreover, Jordan’s contention that cases in which investigators haven’t gathered enough evidence for an arrest should then still be counted as solved just enshrines failure as success. His reasoning also doesn’t explain why Oakland’s clearance rates are so much lower than they used to be. After all, the definition of a clearance is the same as it was a decade ago when the department used to do a good job solving crimes. The same is true of Jordan’s explanations for today’s high crime rate. Oakland has been home to lots of ex-cons for decades, and its public school system has long been among the worst in the state. And finally, crime spiked in Oakland well before the housing bubble burst and the current recession began.
According to Harnett, the expert hired by Jerry Brown, Oakland’s investigative unit is incapable of solving most crimes because it’s woefully understaffed and overwhelmed, leaving it no time to clear difficult cases. “The lieutenants who manage the department’s investigative units are forced to triage cases, assigning for investigation only those cases that present a very strong probability of being solved,” he explained in his 2006 report.
So how understaffed is Oakland? Plenty. It has, for example, the same number of homicide investigators as Sacramento — ten. That may seem reasonable considering the two cities are similar in size and have a similar number of total sworn personnel. But Oakland is a much more dangerous city. Sacramento has averaged just 51 homicides per year from 2005 through 2007 compared to Oakland’s 119. In other words, the workload of each Oakland homicide investigator is more than double of those in Sacramento. “It would be extremely difficult under those circumstances to expect a high clearance rate,” said one California law enforcement officer, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want to criticize the Oakland Police Department publicly. “With that staffing and number of homicides, I don’t know how the detectives would find time to sleep.” Not surprisingly, Sacramento solved 21 more homicide cases than Oakland from 2005 through 2007.
In an interview last week, Chief Tucker acknowledged that his investigative team is overworked. That would have changed if voters had approved the parcel tax last month. “We’re really skinny over there,” he said. “If Measure NN had passed, we would have really beefed up the investigative unit.” Jordan said that under optimal conditions Oakland’s homicide team would have twenty investigators.
Now that the entire department has more than 800 officers, up from about 730 at the beginning of 2008, Jordan said it plans to add four investigators to the investigative unit in the coming weeks, bringing the total to 37. In addition to the ten investigators in homicide, there are currently just seven detectives investigating more than 3,600 aggravated assaults a year; only nine detectives investigating about 3,500 robberies annually; and just seven detectives handling more than 16,000 felony property crimes each year, including burglary, grand theft, and auto theft. Jordan said he has not decided where to assign the new officers, but he ruled out homicide because that unit only accepts veteran cops with years of investigative experience.
The recent influx of new cops has not really altered Tucker’s ability to transfer more officers to the investigative team. Tucker has always had the ability to transfer officers into investigations, but has chosen not to do so. The addition of new cops hasn’t changed that. Under Measure Y, a 2004 ballot measure that paid for most of the new officers, the cops are to be deployed in community policing duties.
The one division that is top-heavy with investigators is internal affairs — the unit that examines alleged wrongdoing by cops. According to Jordan, it has fourteen investigators, plus another fourteen sworn officers who perform administrative duties, for a total of 28. The unit was enlarged following the 2003 Riders’ settlement. The Riders were a group of rogue officers accused of abusing and planting drugs on suspects. As part of a federal consent decree stemming from a lawsuit against the city, the police department must now thoroughly investigate allegations of officer misconduct. Jordan, who commanded internal affairs in 2005, said the unit is on track to investigate about 1,700 cases this year.
In recent years, top police brass have blamed the size of internal affairs and the Riders settlement for why the department doesn’t have enough people investigating homicides, robberies, and the rest. But in the past several months, Oakland City Attorney John Russo, who negotiated the settlement on behalf of the city, and Jim Chanin, a private attorney who represented the Riders’ alleged victims, both said the department could replace some sworn officers in internal affairs with lesser-paid civilians, just as other police agencies have done around the country. That way, Oakland could have more investigators on the streets to clear cases. “There’s no reason they can’t use civilian investigators,” Chanin said. “They could do it, but they don’t choose to do that.”
Jordan said the department was open to the idea, but that the police officers’ union opposes it. The union is against replacing dues-paying officers with civilians, he said. However, he also said he didn’t think the department could afford to hire civilian investigators at a time the city is grappling with a $42 million deficit. Ultimately, it could be up to the mayor and the city council to decide.
But Oakland’s inability to solve crimes isn’t just a personnel issue. It’s also about focus. Tucker acknowledged that since he took over the department in 2005, his main priority has not been to investigate and solve crimes, but to improve Oakland’s response to calls for service. The department gets so many calls from residents every day that the 300 officers on patrol spend most of their time driving to people’s homes and businesses and filling out crime reports, he said. But that’s a service-oriented tactic that seems more suitable for a suburban sheriff’s department than for an urban police force.
Tucker and the department have yet to produce a detailed plan for reducing crime. In addition, the department has de-emphasized juvenile crime investigations and arrests over the past half-decade, and it obviously has not learned its lesson from the takeover robberies. Plus, there is no indication that Oakland’s stratospherically high crime rate is close to subsiding. Last week, CQ Press (Congressional Quarterly) named Oakland the fifth-most dangerous city in the nation based on 2007 crime figures. Oakland was fourth in last year’s ranking, which was based on 2006 stats. And as of last week, 2008 was slightly higher than 2007 in terms of violent crime.
In addition to concentrating on service calls, the department has spent considerable resources on crime suppression in recent years, targeting “hot spots” throughout the city, like it did with the sideshows and the takeover robberies. It’s about blanketing the roughest areas of the city with patrol cars, and pulling over people who act “suspicious.” “It’s ridiculous,” said Ron Oz, a former Oakland police officer, department ombudsman, and 2006 mayoral candidate who was once friends with Tucker, but now is his most prolific critic. “We’re chasing hot spots all over town.”
And it isn’t working. If Tucker had listened to Harnett and focused more on investigating crimes, catching criminals, and putting them behind bars, there’s strong evidence that the city’s crime rate would now be declining, as would the number of “hot spots” and calls the department receives from crime victims.
If Jerry Brown had had his way, Oakland would have a different police chief and possibly a different philosophy for fighting crime. In late 2006, Brown was fed up with the city’s soaring crime rate. Never known as patient man, Brown had ousted two prior police chiefs, Joseph Samuels and Richard Word, because they didn’t lower crime fast enough. In fact, he replaced Word with Tucker in late 2004 in an attempt to finally bring the city’s crime problem under control.
But within two years, crime under Tucker worsened dramatically. In fact, Word’s tenure looks pretty good right now. In his last year in office, the total number of violent crimes was 5,151. By 2006, it leapt to 7,599, and has remained high ever since — a 48 percent increase. No other large California city studied by the Express experienced such a huge jump. So Brown decided that before he left City Hall, he would replace Tucker with one of his deputies, Captain Frank Lowe. According to Lowe, a 28-year veteran of the department, Brown called him to his condo just before Christmas of 2006 for a job interview. Lowe said he told the mayor: “We need to be in crisis mode, crime is the worst I’ve seen in Oakland and I was born and raised here.” After the interview, Brown said, “Frank, I think you’re the man for the job,” Lowe told the Express.
But then the deal unraveled. According to Lowe, Brown said that he had told City Administrator Deborah Edgerly about his plan to change police chiefs. Edgerly, who was fired earlier this year by Dellums after she apparently interfered in a police investigation, then told Tucker what Brown wanted to do. Tucker became upset and refused to step down, so Brown gave up on the idea, deciding that he didn’t need another City Hall power struggle just before leaving office. “Jerry said, ‘Sorry Frank, it didn’t work out,'” said Lowe, who retired from the department in 2007 and is now the chief of police for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco.
But before Brown went to Sacramento, he left a parting gift — the Harnett report. In addition to critiquing the department’s investigative shortcomings, Harnett recommended that the agency adopt geographic policing, in which the city would be divided into three to five large districts commanded by captains responsible for crime in their respective areas. Harnett also recommended that the department begin using CompStat, a crime accountability and data tracking system that originated in New York and has spread to cities around the nation.
Tucker deserves credit for instituting geographic policing. After Word had abandoned it at the start of the decade, the department’s record for solving crimes began to tumble. Tucker said that with geographic policing and the higher number of cops in the department, he thinks the city will experience a substantial decrease in crime during the second half of next year. “That’s when all the new staff will all be trained and on board,” he said.
But it’s hard to envision crime plummeting, considering that Tucker has dragged his feet with CompStat and has no plans to significantly expand the investigative unit. Moreover, the department has lurched from one scandal to the next under his tenure, from the botched murder investigation of journalist Chauncey Bailey to the recent revelation that officers had lied on search warrant affidavits. And all the while, violent criminals have continued to roam free in Oakland in increasing numbers, offending again and again.
The search warrant scandal, which was revealed by the Oakland Tribune in October, could ultimately lead to about three dozen criminal drug cases being thrown out of court, according to Assistant Public Defender Drew Steckler. At least eight officers have already been suspended. The cops involved are known as “problem-solving officers,” and are not part of the investigative team. The officers are under investigation by internal affairs, although top police officials have made excuses for them, maintaining that it was the result of poor “training” and that the officers simply made “misstatements” when they swore under oath that drugs had been tested in the police crime lab when they had not.
As for the Bailey murder investigation, it appeared at first to be a remarkable feat for a police department that has trouble solving crimes. Less than 36 hours after the editor of the Oakland Post and former reporter for the Oakland Tribune was assassinated, homicide investigators had a prime suspect in custody and a confession in hand. Prosecutors quickly filed murder charges against Devaughndre Broussard, a handyman at Your Black Muslim Bakery in North Oakland. Bailey had been investigating the bakery’s financial problems when he was killed.
But then the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the lead homicide investigator in the case, Sergeant Derwin Longmire, was friends with Yusuf Bey IV, the bakery’s CEO and the man that Broussard claimed had told him to confess. Then, the Chauncey Bailey Project, a consortium of news organizations dedicated to investigating Bailey’s death, revealed that Bey IV had kept the murder weapon in his closet and had stalked Bailey just hours before the killing. In late October, Dellums asked state Attorney General Brown’s office to investigate the police department’s handling of the case. The agency’s own internal affairs division is also looking into it.
But as troubled as the Bailey murder investigation was, the department still recorded it as a success. It was one of 30 homicides the department reported as being solved in 2007 out of 119 total — a dismal 25 percent clearance rate.
The Oakland Police Department employs many excellent officers in its ranks. But for several city leaders, the search warrant scandal and the Bailey affair are just the latest examples of how dysfunctional the department has become under Tucker. City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who opposed the recent police services tax, stopped short of saying the police chief should be fired. But he made it clear that he believes there’s no accountability in the department or from City Hall when arrests nosedived and crime spiked. “It takes political will,” he said. “It takes a willingness to make the decisions that need to be made, whether it’s the mayor or the chief of police.”
A few months ago, there was widespread speculation that Tucker might retire soon to take care of his sick wife. But he said he recently promised Dellums he will stay for one more year. The mayor and the police chief have a strong relationship and there is no indication that Dellums is unhappy with Tucker’s performance or holds him responsible for crime being at historically high levels. Moreover, the mayor doesn’t have a track record of acting decisively. After all, it’s taken him months to replace Edgerly, and he has yet to hire a new director of economic development.
De La Fuente believes that the mayor or the new city administrator — if and when that person is finally brought on board — should conduct a national search for Tucker’s eventual replacement. In terms of the chain of command, Jordan would be next in line for Tucker’s position, but De La Fuente believes the department needs new blood, an outsider who is not afraid to shake things up. “We need to get a chief of police who can manage this department and reduce crime,” he said.
The council president’s analysis appears to make sense in light of Jordan’s recent actions. The assistant chief has shown that he is jealously protective of the department and may have trouble changing its culture. For example, in late October, he issued a public statement staunchly defending the lead investigator in the Bailey murder, claiming “there is no evidence Longmire interfered in any criminal investigations” involving Bey IV. The statement not only contradicted reporting by both the Chronicle and the Chauncey Bailey Project, but it showed Jordan’s bias, considering that both the internal affairs and the state attorney general’s investigations into Longmire’s actions have not yet been completed.
But regardless of who becomes the next police chief, it’s apparent that the department needs to greatly expand its investigative team and refocus on solving crime. Crime suppression and worrying about responding to calls for service simply hasn’t worked. Right now, crime pays in Oakland, and it’s clear the only way that will change is if we arrest our way out of the problem.