Community Policing Revisited

Even skeptics are coming to believe Robert Bobb's new plan for the OPD may actually be for the best.

Nothing sums up the state of relations between Oakland’s citizens and police better than a brief exchange reported in last week’s Los Angeles Times. Reporter John Glionna was following up on the case of OPD officer Mike Yoell, who has steadily risen through the ranks despite several controversial incidents involving his use of force. In 1995, Yoell was suspended for three days for shooting an unarmed robbery suspect. In a separate incident, the city shelled out $225,000 to avoid a lawsuit after Yoell beat up a West Oakland recreation director. But these incidents have hardly put a dent in Yoell’s rising career — in fact, he’s now a lieutenant. When Glionna asked Oakland Police Officer Association President Bob Valladon about Yoell and about the criticisms his regular promotions have prompted from the grassroots group People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO), Valladon said, “You’re talking to the people who hate the police. So I’m not talking to you.” He then hung up the phone.

For the better part of a decade, Oakland’s leaders have mostly agreed that a policy of community policing — in which residents and police officers regularly meet to identify blight, dice games, liquor stores, and other neighborhood crime magnets — was necessary to whittle away at the city’s tenacious crime level and reestablish trust between the city’s cops and civilians. Unfortunately, community policing can’t work unless officers like Bob Valladon and groups like PUEBLO agree to work together. So despite years of official consensus, Oakland’s community policing program remains an uneven experiment, hamstrung first by determined opposition from then-police chief Joe Samuels (“Every officer is a community policing officer,” he used to say while refusing to implement even the most modest reforms) and then by personnel who regard the program as a namby-pamby liberal kissyfest. When City Manager Robert Bobb and Mayor Jerry Brown came to power three years ago, the tenuous program suffered a further blow; both men are openly infatuated with Rudy Giuliani’s zero-tolerance, kick-ass approach to law enforcement, and regard civilian oversight with outright hostility.

So when the city manager’s office recently announced plans to reform the community policing program, advocates were understandably suspicious. What good could come from an office that has never had much use for the program in the first place? But over the last few months, even the people who drafted the city’s original plan have begun to think that maybe Bobb’s proposed changes aren’t so bad. Now, as the City Council prepares to vote on the reforms, a consensus is gradually building to support the city manager’s proposal to remake the program from top to bottom — and change the face of law enforcement all over the city.

The impetus for the proposed changes in the community policing program comes from a staffing crisis in the Oakland Police Department. The scandals surrounding the awarding of the security contract at the Oakland airport have so embarrassed local officials that they quickly moved to take control of security functions from the ABC Security company and hand it over to the cops, whose ranks were already stretched thin due to this summer’s decision to have police officers patrol Oakland’s public schools. The OPD now needs to move 42 officers off the streets and into the schools and terminals. Bobb proposes pulling the school protection detail from the 57 officers it has working with neighbors in its community policing program.

Proponents of the program were at first outraged when the city manager’s office announced a proposal to eliminate the community policing position entirely and proclaim every cop a community policing officer — it seemed as if this would essentially redefine community policing out of existence. But after closer inspection, many of the same critics have been reluctantly convinced that Bobb’s plan may work after all.

The biggest problem Oakland’s community policing program has encountered, claims OPD lieutenant Dave Walsh, is that community police officers have virtually nothing in common with regular patrol officers. While the community policing cops sit in meetings and listen to complaints about liquor stores, patrol officers are still focused on the 911 “call for service” model. Since virtually none of the department’s veteran officers volunteered for community policing duty when the program first got underway, most of the community policing cops are younger officers with little street experience. “There is a significant disconnect between officers working in the patrol division and those working in [community policing],” Walsh wrote in a recent memo to the City Council. “Communication between these entities is generally poor.” Police brass, meanwhile, are irritated at the tendency of rank-and-file cops to self-dispatch across town whenever an officer needs assistance, leaving their own beats high and dry.

Bobb’s office proposes to reassign community liaison functions from the 57 designated beat officers to twelve lieutenants, each of whom would be solely responsible for “problem solving” in individual communities and have a crew of sergeants to carry out their orders. In addition, all officers would have to attend meetings with the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils set up by the original community policing program and would be prohibited from leaving their beats unless expressly ordered to. The thinking is that once they’re required to stick around their patrol area, patrol officers would have nothing better to do than work on preventing crime before it happens. Department officials estimate the officers spend forty percent of their time doing something other than responding to 911 calls — that, they say, will now be time that individual police officers can spend working on cleaning up the street corners.

Effective community-policing depends on the good faith of individual officers, and critics initially worried that unless one cop was dedicated to working on neighborhood problem solving in each beat full-time, the whole program could wither on the vine. But police officials promise that while individual patrol officers may scoff at the whole idea of community policing, the chain of command is so hard-wired into the rank and file that when a lieutenant tells an officer to park his patrol car next to a liquor store, he’ll do it without question.

That’s a promise that community policing advocates have found reassuring. “The thing that convinced me this could work was that community policing would be translated into a line-of-command, structural imperative,” says Don Link, who helped draft the original program almost ten years ago. “Officers understand the chain of command, they understand that you don’t question orders. If you’ve got a superior calling you on the carpet, they do it. It’s their duty, which is something they understand very well.”

Ironically, the new plan may also help overcome one of the Oakland Police Department’s worst liabilities. The department is plagued with young, inexperienced police officers; the average age of an Oakland cop is 24, and sixty percent of the department’s rank and file have fewer than four years of experience. The relative inexperience of so many police officers gives the city an opportunity to teach them how to do community policing right. “It’s like having a brand-new teacher,” says City Councilmember Jane Brunner. “The downside is they don’t know how to teach, but the upside is you get to train them.”

There clearly will be a lot of training required in the next few years. Although crime statistics are down sharply since the dark days of 1993, police misconduct complaints have skyrocketed, especially in recent years. In fact, the number of such complaints has doubled since 1998, the year Jerry Brown took office. Some critics claim that Brown’s tough-on-crime rhetoric has sent an unmistakable message to the army of young officers patrolling the streets, and the new community policing regime faces a serious challenge in attempting to modify that message.

“To me, the issue is leadership,” says school board member Dan Siegel, who was another architect of the original community policing program. “The failure to fully implement community policing is based on the fact that neither the mayor nor the city manager really agree with it as a strategy. Juxtapose that with their support for the model that Giuliani pioneered in New York, which is the opposite of community policing. That leads to the cowboy behavior, the Riders and the rest of it. City leadership is giving mixed messages to the rank and file.” For all his suspicion, however, Siegel and the other original brains behind community policing are warily willing to give Bobb a chance to prove them wrong.

For her part, Lillian Lopez, a leader with the grassroots group Oakland Community Organizations, hopes that whatever happens at City Hall results in the return of her neighborhood community policing officer, whom she says inexplicably disappeared a few months back. “Our community policing officer really made a difference on the street,” she says. “Whenever he heard about a problem, he would always be there. Whenever we called and asked if we could meet with him, he’d show up. Then one day, it was like he just disappeared. I tried to call him but never heard back. I’ll be glad just to get someone like him back again.”

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