High Times for Drug Kingpins

While talking tough about crime, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has presided over the dismantling of OPD's vice unit and a rise in drug crime.

When you think of Oakland, think of poison. Oaktown is the hub of the East Bay’s illegal-drug distribution network, in which criminals smuggle tons of cocaine and heroin each year through the seaport and airport. Almost every one of Oakland’s one hundred-plus annual homicides can be traced directly to the drug trade. City Councilmember Larry Reid, who tries to visit the scene of every murder in his district, is so traumatized by the stress that he says he can no longer sleep for more than a few hours; instead, he spends his nights beseeching God to “give me the words to make everyone stop killing.” Drug kingpins are rotting the souls of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods.

And Police Chief Richard Word has quietly abolished the one unit responsible for putting them in prison.

The Oakland Police Department’s narcotics investigative unit consists of seven plainclothes officers and a sergeant. They conduct covert surveillance, establish a circle of informants, and work their way up the food chain. While the patrol cops bust street-level dealers, who often are young kids or crackheads working for a fix, the narcs go after the mid- to upper-level dealers, who distribute kilos of cocaine and heroin to their underlings. They go after the real bad guys.

At least, they used to. In September 2002, a series of scandals shocked the narcotics investigative unit, the most prominent of which involved two officers who were caught trying to score with some San Leandro hookers. Word, who used to work as a narcotics officer himself, was so incensed that he “temporarily” disbanded the unit until he could clean out the corruption and assign officers of good character. “We had people in that unit who were up to no damn good, and I had to fire them,” he says.

Fifteen months later, Oakland still has no narcotics unit — and no realistic plans to bring it back. Last week, Lieutenant Rick Hart was assigned the task of finally reconstituting the unit, but he says he won’t be able to get a team of detectives up and running for at least six months, partly because Word has no plans to assign him new officers. In fact, thanks to budget cuts and the current drug-related homicide epidemic, Hart says he probably won’t come close to building another narcotics unit before he retires in a year. It’s inconceivable, but true — the Oakland Police Department does not have a team assembled to catch the drug lords that are destroying this city.

“We don’t advertise to them that the unit is down, but it has to be having an impact,” Hart says. “It’s not only embarrassing, it’s frightening for a city of this size, with the crime that we have. All the crime here flows from drugs, whether it’s murders over fighting over drug turf, or burglaries committed by people to support drug habits — everything flows from the narcotics problem. It’s beyond my imagination — we have to staff that section back up again.”

In place of the narcotics unit, Chief Word has set up six “crime-reduction teams,” which combine street patrols and community policing techniques to focus on problem areas. But this still amounts to street-level policing, not investigative work. The street teams pass on all big narcotics tips to the Alameda County Narcotics Task Force and a second task force run by the Drug Enforcement Administration; it should be noted that seven Oakland cops still do investigative work for these task forces. Word claims that these teams adequately provide the investigative work to chase down the big drug dealers. “I used to be a narc, and I think they do valuable work,” he says. “It’s good to have that resource at your disposal. But we have that availability with the two task forces.”

Unfortunately, Word’s own crime statistics tell a different story. According to the police department’s Web site, narcotics arrests fell a remarkable 17.7 percent in 2003, the year after he disbanded the narcotics unit. Drug arrests are currently at their lowest level since Mayor Jerry Brown took office, falling from a high of 5,483 in 2000 to last year’s low of 3,935. And lest anyone assume that fewer arrests means victory in the war on drugs, Word himself acknowledges that this is not the case: “Our arrests are down. Some of our drug marketers and dealers are very sophisticated, and traditional tactics like buy-bust aren’t as useful as other things. You gotta do certain things — surveillance, informants. But you have to focus on the right areas.”

Surveillance, informants: The police department used to have a team to employ these tactics — the narcotics investigative unit. According to Hart, only a narcotics unit can do the intelligence work the police need to make progress in the war on drugs. “One of our biggest problems is open drug markets in Oakland,” he says. “A lot of our crime reduction teams are targeting them by making arrests, but you have to have narcotics units investigate those. They concentrate on the mid-level dealers, and a lot of the information comes from the street dealers who are grinding away. You need investigators to glean that information. The [crime-reduction team] officer may not have time to do that, because he’s out there in uniform.”

Lieutenant Ben Fairow, who used to run the narcotics unit and then oversaw its dismantling, says that two events interrupted the department’s plans to reconstitute the unit. The city cut the department’s budget — to the tune of $9.3 million, according to the latest budget figures — and the homicide rate skyrocketed. Word was caught between a rock and a hard place. He had to get rid of 24 officers through attrition, cancel the next round of recruitment, and reassign specialized officers to patrol in order to combat the rising plague of murders. Even before the narcotics unit was disbanded, Fairow had shifted its focus to violent drug dealers, in accordance with the department’s new priorities. Once the homicide rate took off and the money dried up, there were simply no resources left. “It was my intention to start it again, we just didn’t have the staff,” Fairow says. “Street level is the visible end of narcotics, but it’s really the suppliers who are the problem. But who do we get calls on? The street dealers. … You’re torn. You know what the root of the problem is, but you also want to try to address the violence.”

In fact, police officials recently told the Oakland Tribune that up to 80 percent of last year’s homicides were probably drug-related. As for Word’s budget problems, dismantling the narcotics unit actually has cost the city money. According to Deputy Chief Mike Holland, the amount of “asset forfeiture” funds seized in drug arrests has declined by $1.1 million since the unit disappeared. That money is split between several different agencies, but all of them are public and all of them are broke. The salaries of eight police personnel total considerably less than a million bucks, which means that as far as the public is concerned, the narcotics unit more than made up for its operational costs. Word himself admitted that this was an unfortunate result of dismantling the narcotics team: “That’s a concern. We’re not taking in as much as we used to.”

But for Word, such issues take a backseat to the enormous public pressure on him to drive down the murder rate. Even traffic cops have been redirected to violence-prone intersections in a desperate attempt to stanch the flow of blood. For a few months last year, a strategy of stepped-up patrols in known hot spots reduced the killings, and police officials told the Tribune that if the trend continued, Oakland’s murder rate might once again dip as low as eighty per year. But then in the first three weeks of the new year, ten Oakland residents were murdered, putting us on course for up to 180 murders in 2004. Meanwhile, Word continues to ignore the one unit that helps pay for itself, whose disappearance has coincided with the worst narcotics arrest record in the history of Jerry Brown’s administration, and whose work directly addresses the single biggest cause of the city’s murders.

“Without a narcotics unit, it’s very difficult to have any control at all over what’s coming through your city,” Hart says. “Crooks talk among themselves about what the cops are doing, the big publicity arrests, it plays into the minds of the dealers about whether to operate in your city. … You have to have someone watching, or else it’ll become Dodge City, it’s just a free-for-all. Why not ship everything through that city if no one is out there monitoring or checking on it?”

But Hart’s worries aren’t exactly echoed on the City Council. Only Councilwoman Jane Brunner expressed surprise when told about the narc unit’s demise. “That’s pretty amazing,” she says. “We don’t want all the police action aimed at the lowest-level street action. The kids on the street selling drugs are just being used by the kingpins and drug dealers, and if you take one kid on the street, another will come up, unless you take care of the big guys.” But Brunner’s council peers Danny Wan and Larry Reid already knew that the narcotics unit died a quiet death inside the department’s bureaucracy, and both seem too afflicted by the city’s culture of resignation to be particularly aroused. Wan doubted that getting rid of drug kingpins would even reduce drug trafficking. Reid is too preoccupied with the murders to spend much time thinking about the narcotics unit. At least Nancy Nadel suggested that Measure R, a parcel tax on the March ballot that includes money to hire 25 more cops, could help reinstate the unit.

But even if the tax passes, Word makes no guarantees that he’ll restore the unit. And what does the mayor have to say about the dead narcotics unit? Nothing. The man who promised to get tough on crime, hired Word in the first place, reportedly reviews the previous night’s crime statistics over breakfast each morning, and still managed to preside over a staggering decline in drug-related arrests, did not respond to half a dozen requests for an interview over the course of three days. Fortunately, he’s scheduled to give a speech this week at the annual western convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, of which this paper is a member. His subject? Crime. We’ll let you know what he says.

Meanwhile, it’s high times for drug dealers in Oakland. Arrests are down, the detectives are gone, and as long as you don’t kill anyone, the cops will barely look in your direction. Let the good times roll.

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