Most of the comments and questions at last night’s public safety town hall at Oakland’s Roosevelt Middle School focused either on community members’ distrust of the police or on sex work and human trafficking.
“Whose side are you on?” a 17-year-old senior at MetWest High School, asked of the police. A 12-year-old girl said she’d seen “cops in alleyways just do stuff with women,” including sex workers and trafficking victims.
Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick replied that the police across the country “have done a lot of wounding” to the communities they serve, but said her department is committed to changing its reputation.
“Are you going to put up with that crap from your fellow officers” she asked several beat cops, a sergeant, and captain about allegations of exploitation and corruption.
“No ma’am,” they answered.
The event, organized by Oakland City Councilmember Abel Guillen, offered residents a rare opportunity to engage one-on-one with Chief Kirkpatrick, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s public safety advisor Venus Johnson.
One after another, neighbors told stories of their encounters with officers, chronic crime problems, and talked of hopes that a stronger partnership can form between Oaklanders and their police force.
O’Malley spoke about her agency’s effort to re-frame the public discourse around sex work and sexual exploitation. She said she prefers terms like “slave owner” and “exploiter” to “pimp” because she believes it more accurately describes the role of those who profit from the sexual labor of a largely female population that works on Oakland’s streets or through the internet.
She said her office has waged a campaign for years to retire the term prostitution and instead frame sex work and sexual exploitation, especially that of minors, as “human trafficking” or “sex trafficking.”
Both O’Malley and Kirpatrick said they want to crack down more on buyers of sex in an effort to reduce demand.
Many of the residents in attendance seemed to approve of these approaches to street-level prostitution, whether it involves adults or juveniles.
“Words do matter,” said Kirkpatrick, referring to O’Malley’s use of language to re-frame how sex work is defined by law enforcement agencies.
Similarly, but on a different topic, Kirkpatrick said she wants the Oakland police to adopt a language of “re-entering citizens” when speaking of residents who might be on probation or parole. She said the police should help people coming back from jail or prison gain employment and contribute to the community.
Johnson said she’s working on mapping safe routes for children to take to school so that they can avoid high-crime areas and won’t have to “traverse homeless encampments.”
As an example of one new cultural shift in Oakland’s police department, Johnson pointed out that Kirkpatrick recently changed OPD’s policy to allow officers to wear clothing that reveals tattoos. Previously, cops with tattoos on their arms or legs could not wear short-sleeved shirts and shorts if it revealed the art. Johnson said it’s just one small way the department is humanizing its police.
Toward the end of the town hall, Kirpatrick was asked about the arrest warrants served by Department of Homeland Security investigators in Oakland several weeks ago. Two OPD officers assisted federal immigration and customs agents by blocking off the street where the operation was conducted. A house was searched, and two men were arrested. ICE officials have declined to release the identity of those arrested or records including the warrants that were served, and charging documents.
Kirkpatrick denied that OPD was helping homeland security agents enforce any immigration-related laws and described the matter as involving a man who illegally “trafficked” workers into the country for his business.
She said homeland security contacted her the day before the operation, and she offered to provide the two officers to secure the streets. “We are not participating in your arrest,” is what the chief says she told the federal agents.
“There is not a deportation matter in this case,” said Kirkpatrick.