OPD Still Targeting Black Residents

Despite a decade-long reform effort, Oakland police are disproportionately stopping African Americans and searching them.

For years, Oakland residents have been divided into two main camps: those who believe the city does not have nearly enough police officers, and should do whatever it can to hire more, and those who do not trust Oakland cops and are not interested in spending additional funds on the department. A new report released by the city this week provides further insight into why the latter group feels the way it does, and could deepen people’s distrust of OPD.

The report showed that despite a decade-long, court-ordered reform effort that is designed to eliminate racial profiling by police, the Oakland Police Department is still disproportionately targeting black residents. The data, collected from April through November of last year, showed that African Americans accounted for 62 percent of all traffic stops by police in the city, despite the fact that blacks represent 28 percent of the population. Whites, by contrast, accounted for just 12 percent of police stops, even though they represent about 26 percent of the city’s population.

Moreover, Oakland police officers were far more likely to search black motorists after stopping them than whites or any other ethnic group. OPD searched African Americans 42 percent of the time compared to 20 percent for whites, 27 percent for Latinos, and 17 percent for Asians. However, most of those searches proved to be unwarranted. In fact, police found no illegal items in nearly four out of five searches of black motorists — roughly the same ratio for searches of whites and Latinos.

In addition, African-American motorists were more likely to be stopped when they had not violated any traffic laws. Just 54 percent of stops of black people were for traffic violations, compared to 70 percent for whites, 71 percent for Latinos, and 76 percent for Asians. “It certainly supports the notion that African Americans feel like they have been racially profiled,” civil rights attorney John Burris told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Although the stop data is troubling, Oakland city leaders and police commanders deserve some credit for publicizing it and being transparent about the results. “The overrepresentation of people of color in our criminal justice system is historic, nationwide, and unacceptable,” Mayor Jean Quan said in a statement. “We have a responsibility at the local level to foster and reinforce partnerships between our police and our communities to tackle these issues, and this report represents a significant step forward, establishing a clear baseline with concrete data for us to work with.”

The report also makes it clear that OPD still has a lot of work to do. Racial profiling is one of the key issues of the federal reform effort, and Independent Court Monitor Robert Warshaw has been pushing the department to keep better records on traffic stops. And while tracking and maintaining good data represents a step forward for OPD, it remains unclear whether the department has improved or is getting worse when it comes to stopping black motorists, because of the lack of reliable data from years past.

There are also troubling indications from Interim Police Chief Sean Whent that he believes the stop data shows that the department is doing nothing wrong. Whent told the Oakland Tribune that OPD would not make it goal to stop fewer African Americans, and that the reason the department pulls over a disproportionate percentage of blacks is because OPD focuses its patrols on neighborhoods that have higher crime rates.

But such attitudes, which have been shared by previous police chiefs and commanders, only make it more difficult to change OPD’s culture and to restore trust in the department. And that’s a problem, because people’s mistrust of OPD helps ensure that the department will remain an ineffective law enforcement agency, which then, in turn, worsens the city’s crime problems.

How? During the past decade, OPD has had one of the poorest records in the state for solving crimes, and often solves fewer than 30 percent of homicides in the city each year. That means people who commit more than 70 percent of the killings in Oakland get away with it, and are thus free to kill again. The department has a similarly miserable track record for solving other crimes, including robberies and assaults.

Over the years, OPD officials have blamed these poor results on the fact that investigators have trouble convincing witnesses of crimes to cooperate with them. But considering the aforementioned data, who could blame people? After all, if an Oakland cop pulls you over for no reason — other than the color of your skin — how likely would you be to then help police when they ask for it?

Three-Dot Roundup

The Oakland City Council agreed to pay $3.25 million to a bicyclist who was badly injured when she crashed on a pothole-laden road in 2011. The cyclist, Dulcey Bower, crashed on Mountain Boulevard between Ascot Drive and the Highway 13 onramp. Prior to the crash, the city had received numerous complaints about potholes on Mountain. City officials said they have since fixed the area where Bower was hurt, but Oakland has a backlog of road repair jobs due to a lack of city funds. … The council also voted last week to tighten the city’s rent control law after landlords and tenants’ groups reached a compromise deal. The new rules, which take effect this summer, cap rent hikes to a total of 10 percent a year for upgrades to buildings. They also prohibit landlords from passing on all the costs of capital improvements to tenants, capping the total at 70 percent. … And the Richmond City Council voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $12.30 an hour — the highest in the state, the Contra Costa Times reported. The wage hike will be phased in over three years, rising to $9.60 in 2015, $11.52 in 2016, and, finally, $12.30 in 2017.

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