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“Problem-solvers” try a different kind of policing

on November 20, 2008


Once officers receive badges from the Oakland Police academy, they usually begin to gravitate to an area of expertise. “When you come on patrol, you specialize,” Oakland Police Sgt. Bernard Ortiz says. “Some guys become motor-men, they love giving tickets. Some guys are dope guys.”

For a long time, Ortiz was a dope guy. For ten years, he negotiated streets in high-speed chases, responded to shootouts and participated in drug busts in East and West Oakland. There, in the heart of the most dangerous parts of the city, he became comfortable as a police officer, he says, and learned to “enjoy going after the really good bad guys.”

This year, Ortiz finds himself in new territory professionally, beginning with a change in geography. Since July, his duty has been to keep the peace in North Oakland.

Problem-solving Officers Bernard Ortiz and Anthony Ramos.

Problem-solving Officers Bernard Ortiz and Anthony Ramos.

On a fall Tuesday afternoon, 1400 hours, that’s 2 p.m. civilian time, his work week begins at police headquarters in downtown Oakland. Ortiz, an outspoken, gregarious leader in his mid-thirties, presides from a desk at the head of the room full of ten officers, each wearing at least two pairs of handcuffs, a gun, an expandable baton, pepper spray, a flashlight, a radio, a bullet-proof vest, and two magazines of ammunition.

The entire group is organizing to zero in on problem areas in the Golden Gate Beat 10x, the western pocket of North Oakland that stretches out along San Pablo Ave. Ortiz needs a volunteer.

“Projects tonight — hotspot operation,” Ortiz begins. “Who wants to run it besides Nadia?”

The room falls silent for a moment. “Hey wait, I think John just volunteered for it,” Ortiz jokes, referring to Temescal’s Beat 9x Officer John Cunnie. Others in the lineup chuckle. Cunnie nods. He’ll do it.

Men and women in this particular wing of law enforcement are called “problem-solving” officers. In contrast to patrol officers, who spend most of their time responding to 911 calls from dispatch, problem-solving officers work on long-term projects to resolve chronic issues, often at the request of residents who attend monthly Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings to voice their concerns.

Problem-solving officers have more autonomy than patrol officers, and they don’t specialize. As Ortiz likes to say, a good problem-solving officer is “a jack of all trades.”

At the suggestion of neighbors, Ortiz’ problem-solving team has tackled everything from widespread traffic violations and vandalism to catalytic converter thefts in Temescal and prostitution along San Pablo Ave. Problem-solving officers wear many hats. The workload means they must be capable of investigating long-term issues, while likewise be prepared to control short-term crises.

At the lineup, Ortiz discusses a range of items – nuisance neighbors, burglaries in the North Hills, possible drug dealers at 45th and Market Street. He tells the officers that Area 1 Captain Anthony Toribio is proud of the caseload they’ve  taken on. Ortiz says he’d like to mention one more thing: Officer Maureen Vergara’s efforts to reward good driving with ice cream, and Anthony Ramos’ plan to reward students in the area monthly with an event he calls “Pizza with the Police.”

“Hey, since Maureen has one of the best touchy-feely projects I’ve ever seen, we’re all going to have to do one touchy-feely project,” he says. “Ramos is also ahead in that area.”

The officers shift in their seats. Some grumble a little.

“Seriously it’s a good thing,” Ortiz says. “It’s a good image-thing.”

The officers return to quiet decorum.

“All right,” he says, raising his elbows off the table. “I want an update on the burglaries by the end of the day. Later.” The officers breakheading off to their respective beats.

The idea of balancing rapid response policing with preventive measures like problem-solving officers gained momentum in the 1980s, according to Bonnie Bucqueroux, a former associate director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice. “In dealing with crime in the community, this means arresting those who have lost their right to live among us,” she writes in a post on her Web site “But it also means solving the underlying problems that allow crime to flourish, ranging from domestic violence to substance abuse to illiteracy and even to boredom on the part of young people.”

Ramos dusts for fingerprints.

Ramos dusts for fingerprints.

The Oakland City Council passed a resolution adopting a community policing policy in 1996. Community policing would assist in the empowerment of neighborhoods, the resolution declared, by relying on the organization of citizens to “identify problems, prioritize concerns and develop solutions which are implemented through the cooperation and collaboration of neighborhood residents, public employees and public officials.” Community police officers for each beat would be trained in this “philosophy and practice.”

Later, Oakland’s Measure Y, the voter-passed 2004 Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act,  expanded the practice of community policing, calling for a three-fold increase in the city’s dozen or so community problem-solving officers — beat police who would “serve the residents of that beat to provide consistent contact and familiarity between residents and officers.”

The city council passed still another community policing measure in 2005, this time declaring that in contrast to the 911 emergency response system, community policing would use “proactive, collaborative problem solving methods” to address long-standing issues at the block, neighborhood, and citywide level.

As written in all these resolutions and measures, Ortiz says, many found the role hard to define. “In the beginning, no one knew what they should do,” he says. “Some people thought of problem solving officers as their personal security guards.”

Ortiz says his priority has been to give his officers more definite responsibilities. He says he likes to see his officers busy at work, engaged in healthy caseloads.

Ortiz’s move north and into problem solving began seven months after Oakland police redrew their map, trisecting the city into three areas with three captains. Area 1 Cpt. Toribio asked Ortiz to supervise the North Oakland problem-solving officers. “He said I could pick my crew and I said, ‘now we’re working,’” recalls Ortiz.

In addition to several younger officers in their mid-20s, Ortiz asked Anthony Ramos, a senior officer and former partner, to help him steer his crew. Ramos and Ortiz both served in the military — Ortiz for two years in the Navy, Ramos for six years in the Marine Corps — before graduating together from the Oakland Police Academy in 1997. For a year, they worked together in East Oakland in 2000. For three years, Ramos had been working as an officer in Indio, a Southern California desert town near San Diego, until Ortiz invited him back this year, but the friends had kept in touch. Ramos says it was an easy decision. He likes Ortiz’s “working man’s attitude.”

After lineup Ramos drives to his beat, 9x, an area anchored by north Piedmont Avenue’s strip of gelato shops, clothing boutiques and restaurants . On this particular Tuesday, at 1500 hours, he meets a school principal, Zarina Ahmed of Piedmont Avenue Elementary. Ramos proposes his monthly pizza project — give the kids a different idea of what it means to be a police officer, he says, by rewarding star pupils with a pizza lunch with a cop once a month. Ahmed likes it. “A lot of kids don’t have a positive view of the good things officers do,” she says. “It reminds me a lot of ‘Officer Friendly,’ which is what we used to have when I was a kid.”

From 1600 to 1800 hours, Ramos makes traffic stops — cyclists rolling through stop signs and stop lights near Piedmont, plus one driver who Ramos catches talking on her cell phone without a hands-free device.

At 2000 hours, Ramos, Ortiz and the rest of the North Oakland team of problem-solving officers work together to visit crime “hotspots” known for prostitution and drug dealing in Golden Gate. Led by Officer Nadia Clark and Officer John Cunnie, the team works to target suspicious individuals in lots and corners they have been surveying on a regular basis.

As a senior member of the North Oakland team, Ramos says part of his responsibility is to encourage younger officers to do their jobs in the aftermath of public scandals playing out within the police department, including an ongoing investigation into the Oakland police’s response to the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey in 2007. Things are more sensitive now than they were when he was a rookie, he says. “There’s been a big effort to keep people motivated,” Ramos says. “It’s hard to do especially in light of what’s happened to this department in recent years. People get a little timid in terms of doing police work.”

By 2100 hours, Ramos arrives in line with the rest of the squad on a dimly-lit 43rd Street, largely empty, but for two men smoking marijuana, one on the street, one inside a car. The one on the street tosses the blunt, but it’s too late. One officer cites the street guy and releases him; another officer handles the car guy, and upon learning he might be violating a stay-away order, the officer whisks the car guy off to jail.

A half-dozen neighbors, some in their pajamas, flock to see the chain of black-and-whites parked in the middle of the street. They watch the remaining officers in pairs and groups of three inspect the car with their flashlights, and circle a few houses on the street. From a walkway, Ortiz spots a hole in the exterior of one of the houses and uncovers a bag of marijuana, a scale with green residue and a rusty shotgun loaded with shells. He doesn’t need a warrant, because what he sees is “in plain view.” When an Oakland fingerprint technician can’t be reached, Ramos, who is trained in the technique, takes out a kit and dusts the weapon with powder to pick up impressions with transparent tape — a skill he says he perfected in Indio.

Ortiz says he likes to see his squad collaborate like this. Group projects get problem-solving officers “thinking about things outside of the box,” Ortiz says, and help them “take ownership of their beats.”

It’s also about safety, he says — one officer can’t win against three criminals.   “We do spend a lot of time in projects and group enforcement,” Ortiz says. “The reality is, we can’t do this stuff all alone.”

During breaks, Ortiz and Ramos often swap stories about their rookie days in the other sides of the city, comparing the old stomping grounds to their new jurisdiction.

There may in fact be high-level drug lords residing in the area, Ortiz says, but they live in North Oakland for the same reasons other residents do: it’s safer.

And Ramos says his wife kids him about gaining a few pounds since he last worked in Oakland. “Up here is not as jammed-packed with action like it was in the east end,” he confirms.

Still, Ramos and Ortiz plan to stay on in North Oakland. They say they recognize an opportunity here, as problem-solving officers, to take the time to make a community safer, to make a difference. “In the west, you get tired of fighting the fight. I’ve arrested generations of families who end up back on the streets. I realize that in North Oakland, we can do this,” Ortiz says, “These are issues, for the most part, we can resolve.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


  1. Willie Mays on November 26, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    FYI: Shotguns are loaded with shells, not bullets.

    Good article otherwise.

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