Oakland’s new police chief Anthony Batts told a community meeting on Thursday that he wants to try curfews and other methods from his tenure in Long Beach, but doesn’t know if Oakland’s progressive political community will accept them.
In addressing constituents in City Councilwoman Jean Quan’s district, Batts said he plans to use technology, innovative methods and a no-tolerance approach to reduce crime in the city despite a lack of resources. He also urged participation from the community as a vital element in the crime reduction process, and promised an increased focus on community policing.
“Oakland needs to get to the point where it says, ‘Enough is enough,’” Batts said, adding that Oakland is on the “precipice of change” and could experience a revitalization like New York City in the 1990s.
Refusing to use the microphone during his remarks at Bret Harte Elementary School on Coolidge Avenue, Batts told the packed auditorium that the number of homicides in Oakland–109 last year, down from 124 in 2008–was “unacceptable in a contemporary city” of Oakland’s size. Batts, who was Long Beach’s police chief for seven years, said his former city and Oakland could be considered twins in almost all respects–except for the cities’ crime rates and their “aesthetic look.” Oakland and Long Beach share similar population density and poverty levels. The murder rate in Long Beach was between 65 and 70 per year when Batts took over as a police chief in 2002, and only 40 homicides were recorded in Long Beach in 2008. Overall, the crime rate in Oakland is around three times higher than in Long Beach.
The meeting with Quan and her central Oakland constituents came a day after the public release of a damning report on the department’s performance during a shootout that led to the deaths of four Oakland police officers in March 2009. It was part of a series of public talks initiated by Batts since taking on the job as Oakland’s top cop.
Since arriving in Oakland late last year, Batts said he has perceived among its residents a “greater sense of tolerance” toward violent crime than in cities like Long Beach. The new chief said the city should do “everything we can possibly do” to cut down the murder rate, which may include measures unpopular with progressive constituents.
One such measure, Batts said, would be a citywide curfew, a measure the police chief said was implemented with great success in Long Beach. Batts said he proposed instituting a similar measure here—where people under a certain age would not be allowed outside after a certain time at night, unless they were en route to a specific destination. But the proposal did not move forward, and Batts said he was told the city was “too progressive for that.”
“I said, ‘Okay, I understand that. But which is more important, saving lives or being progressive?’”
These words received a great—perhaps even surprising—amount of applause from the audience.
After the meeting, Councilmember Quan told Oakland North she thought a citywide curfew would be a hard sell to constituents and probably ineffective, given the lack of police manpower to enforce it. She also said it was also potentially unfair, since it would target all people under a certain age regardless of their connection to crime.
Quan said she supported a controversial anti-loitering law in the past, which was enacted for a year but not enforced by police because former District Attorney Tom Orloff refused to prosecute those cases. She added she would support a new anti-loitering law, provided it targeted specifically troubled neighborhoods or areas—around liquor stores, for example—and enacted in such a way as to avoid problems with the DA. As examples of targeted programs, Quan cited Oakland’s truancy law, where parents are fined if their children are repeated truants, and the city’s sexual exploitation law, which offers rehabilitation rather than prison time for teenage prostitutes.
“I don’t want something that is too broad,” Quan said. “The most important thing is to save [Oakland teenagers'] lives.”
During the meeting, Batts promised a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of the police department in order to better utilize the city’s limited resources. In December, the department began a citywide survey to determine what Oakland residents view as police priorities. The survey was suspended during the holidays, but should be completed in the next few weeks.
Batts also said he is requiring his top officers to submit resumes and essays justifying “why they should keep their jobs.” He indicated that he plans to institute a department-wide training program on community policing and intends to establish better connections between departments.
Increased use of technology forms another part of the OPD’s new approach under Batts. Starting in February, OPD’s fleet will be monitored by global positioning systems (GPS), an initiative that was started last year before Batts became chief. The department is also looking at programs to identify and monitor needs in each police beat. Batts said OPD must embrace new technology and “basic management tools” to deal with crime that, by all accounts, requires more resources than the 803 officers currently on staff can provide through existing methods. Batts said he thought Oakland could use “double that amount of police officers,” but that the city’s money troubles means the police department must learn to work with its current resources.
“My job and my function is not to whine about it,” Batts said. “I have what I have at this point in time and I have and make that as efficient as we possibly can.”
After the meeting, Batts told Oakland North that many of these broader structural changes will have to wait until his department can demonstrate success during an initial period of crime suppression.
“I think you can’t get prevention or intervention until you calm some of the drama and some of the violence that is going on,” Batts said.
Even though Batts wants more officers for Oakland, there’s a chance he’ll have to make do with even fewer. The city’s budget problems for 2010 may undermine the department’s ability to perform adequately, particularly if the city is unable to maintain the current number of on-duty officers. Three weeks ago, City Council President Jane Brunner predicted the OPD could lose more than 100 officers unless the city’s voters pass an emergency tax measure.
Sworn police officers are not the only ones facing possible reductions. Civilian positions in the police department, such as the neighborhood service coordinators, may also be terminated due to budget problems. According to OPD’s principal financial analyst Gilbert Garcia, OPD’s funding structure under Measure Y means that civilian positions will be the first to go. Garcia said there’s no indication of which civilian jobs would be cut.
“Every civilian job [connected to the OPD] is at risk,” Garcia said. “Including mine.”
Additional reporting by Thomas Gorman