North Oakland meets new police chief Batts
on October 10, 2009
As a teenager in South Central Los Angeles, Oakland’s new police chief Anthony Batts idolized lawmen on “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” But at a community event on Saturday, Batts warned a North Oakland audience against viewing TV shows—at least the ones in which outside heroes clean up the town—as an effective policing model.
“In reality, the Wild West was not won by a guy riding in on a white horse,” Batts told more than fifty people at Peralta Elementary School in the Bushrod neighborhood. “It was won by communities that took a stand.”
Batts, who will take the reins at the Oakland Police Department on October 19 after seven years as Long Beach’s police chief, emphasized that he will rely on Oakland communities taking a stand against crime. He promised to work hard as chief, but said he also wants commitment from the people he serves.
“I’m willing to work my posterior off—to work 15 to 16 hours a day,” Batts said. “But the people who express concerns about crime in Oakland—are they willing to take action? Are they willing to get out in the community?”
Introducing Batts to her North Oakland constituents, City Council President Jane Brunner lauded the new chief’s “tremendous” previous 27 years in the Long Beach Police Department. Before his seven years as chief in that city, Batts worked in community relations and on the narcotics and homicide beats.
“We wanted someone who was a cop’s cop,” Brunner said. “We wanted someone who understands the streets.”
Dressed in a navy blue suit, copper tie and black loafers, the barrel-chested Batts stepped out from the podium and walked comfortably across the front of the room during his hour-long speech and a follow-up question session. He drew applause when he emphasized his intention to live within Oakland city limits and when he referred to his four decades of rooting for Oakland’s favorite football team, the Raiders. He also commended Acting Chief Howard Jordan, who joined him at the podium, for Jordan’s leadership of the department when it lost four officers in the line of duty in March.
Batts promised to sit down with police and community leaders during his first 90 days as police chief and identify priorities for a community strategic plan, similar to one he developed in Long Beach. He elicited laughter when he said people have told him “politics are different in Oakland” than in Long Beach, but said that politics isn’t his primary concern. “My job is crime, my job is saving lives here,” he said with a raised voice. “We’re not playing games, there are too many young people dying.”
In assessing Oakland’s current situation, Batts stressed that the city’s crime statistics have improved since last year, but that much work remains. He noted that in per capita comparisons of California’s ten largest cities (including Long Beach), Oakland is the worst in every major crime category.
“Being tenth out of the ten largest cities is unacceptable and we need to change that,” Batts said. “Those are your tax dollars, and you need to see a return on your investment.”
Oakland’s high crime rates likely stem from the city’s high rates of poverty and drug-related crimes, said Batts. He said his department in Long Beach tracked drug shipments from Mexico to Oakland, which serves as a major drug transit point for the entire Bay Area. Batts said he intends to call upon his relationships with police chiefs in other cities, including San Francisco’s chief George Gascón, to help fight crime in Oakland.
“We have to look at the Bay Area as a whole, as a region, and work together,” Batts said.
Working together is also at the heart of Batts’ community-oriented approach to policing, and the new chief said he knows the Oakland Police Department must do more to earn the public’s trust. The department remains under federal court supervision after the “Riders” case in 2003, when the City of Oakland settled a $10.9 million case in which police officers were accused of mistreating or framing more than 100 suspects in their custody. In addition, Wayne Tucker, the city’s previous police chief, resigned in January prior to a scheduled no-confidence vote by the City Council.
Batts said he believes the department can improve its reputation through sustained effort and honest interactions with the public. “I want to get to the point that when we’re in a meeting like this one and I say the sky is falling, you’ll believe that the sky is falling,” he said. “But that also means that when we make a mistake, it’s incumbent upon me to say that.”
Batts acknowledged that Oakland’s $83 million budget deficit will likely preclude him from adding to the department’s staff of 795 officers, which is down from 846 officers in 2008 due to attrition. But Batts said he believes that even in the city’s tough economic climate, he can improve the department’s performance.
“My function will be to look inside the police department and downsize in places to put more people in black-and-white police vehicles,” Batts said. “If you pick up that phone, you want us to get there quickly and keep people safe.”
At one point, he went over to Brunner, smiled, and put his hand on her shoulder as he said he would “challenge my bosses” if he disagreed with them on curfew laws, shutting down sideshows on Oakland streets, or other issues. Brunner smiled back and said, “I’m going to challenge you—what are you going to do about murders and robberies?”
Many rank-and-file Oakland police officers believe Batts “brings a lot to the table,” according to twenty-year OPD veteran Anthony Toribio, the patrol captain for North Oakland who attended the session with Brunner’s constituents. Toribio said he hopes Batts “continues efforts to improve partnerships with the community, reduce crime, train officers and maintain staffing.”
Others in the audience at Peralta Elementary School also received Batts warmly, offering rounds of applause at several different points in his remarks. Bo Woodward, who works at Bank of America and lives in North Oakland, said he liked Batts’ “fresh perspective” and his willingness to reserve judgment on some issues until he “gets the lay of the land” in Oakland. Woodward also cited Batts’ discussion of a police athletic league—where officers interact with the community while out of uniform—as a good example of a way to increase public trust.
“If the police department doesn’t stop being seen as an occupying force, then it’s not going to improve,” Woodward said. “If people don’t cooperate with the police, they can’t drive down crime.”
Toward the end of his remarks, Batts told a story that spoke to his commitment to the new job in Oakland. Following his final interview with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, Batts said, he received an intriguing phone call from an unexpected source. It was someone at the White House asking him to apply to be head of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. He said it was an honor to be considered, but that he had made other commitments.
“I told them, ‘I think I just gave my word to the mayor of Oakland,’” he said, adding, “My heart is with this city, I want to jump right in. But I need your help.”
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