After five years of Measure Y, Oakland asks “Is community policing the answer?”
on January 21, 2010
Louise Rubalow and Barbara Lerner were at the hospital when it happened.
As Lerner received care for a recent back injury, they got a call: the alarm system at their North Oakland house had gone off, and someone was trying to break in. The women called the police and rushed home.
A half-hour later, they arrived to find their dogs locked outside, the TV gone and no sign of the police. They called the police again, and after some time an officer arrived to take their report. According to Lerner and Rubalow, the officer conducted a summary inspection of the house, but did not take any fingerprints. The women don’t know if the police are still investigating the incident.
“In a way we feel lucky they only took our TV,” Rubalow said a few days later. “But it’s very frustrating, there have been all these break-ins around.”
Burglaries like the one at Rubalow and Lerner’s residence on the evening of January 5 have become commonplace in their Golden Gate neighborhood. Over the past three months, residents have reported almost 40 break-ins to the police. These burglaries took place either during the day while people were at work or—as in Rubalow and Lerner’s case—at strategic times when residents were not home.
To some residents, this suggests that those committing the burglaries have knowledge of people’s schedules. Indeed, a few days before their house was broken into, Rubalow and her partner said they received two strange visits from individuals who, while pretending to know somebody in the building, asked questions about their dogs and their schedules. They posted the incidents on the neighborhood’s online message board, where other residents have reported similar suspicious activities—people canvassing houses and loitering, for instance—that they assume are instances of individuals casing houses, looking for burglary targets.
Since the burglary spree began three months ago, Golden Gate’s online message board has been bustling with activity, with daily threads on which residents report new burglaries, spot suspicious behavior, and exchange potential solutions. The message board is also a place where residents vent their frustration with the police. On one occasion last month, residents even discussed the possibility of starting a resident patrol—a group of people who would walk or drive around the neighborhood with cameras to dissuade crime—though the idea was discarded as impractical and dangerous. For these neighbors, the recent burglary spree is a sign that the area’s efforts at community policing are failing.
Community Policing in Oakland
Many residents believe that the string of Golden Gate burglaries is the kind of problem that could be solved—or avoided—through community policing, or cooperation between concerned residents and officers patrolling a neighborhood beat.
In Oakland, community policing strategies date back to the 1980s program Oakland’s Beat Health, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the city implemented the current system based on having problem solving officers (PSOs) attached to particular police beats. These officers are permanent members of Oakland’s police force assigned to specific areas to work directly with community groups and city agencies to tackle crime and quality of life issues, such as neighborhood drug-dealing, burglaries, and prostitution.
Rather than responding to 911 calls or making arrests, PSOs are charged with working proactively to prevent crime, identifying chronic or emerging problems, and mobilizing neighborhoods and city agencies to address those problems before they get worse. Community groups such as the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils and the Neighborhood Watch are supposed to meet regularly with PSOs to identify issues and problems requiring attention, and the PSOs are responsible for coordinating efforts to resolve these “projects.”
Neighborhood Watch and the Crime Prevention Councils have operated in Oakland under various structures for years, but the PSO system is a relatively new creation. After violent crime spiraled in 2004, Oakland voters passed a special parcel tax on residential and commercial properties, which will raise approximately $19 million in annual revenue through 2014. The initiative, known as Measure Y, augments the fire service and pays for violence prevention programs for high-risk youth. But the Oakland Police Department receives the majority of the money, with roughly $9 million annually funding 57 problems solving officers and six supervising sergeants, for a total of 63 officers.
Golden Gate, like all 57 police beats in the city, has a PSO whose sole job is to work closely with residents and to serve as a bridge between the community and the police department. The neighborhood also has an active neighborhood crime prevention council and a bustling Yahoo! message board where residents have exchanged information and planned neighborhood watch activities since the break-ins.
But many people in Golden Gate and other North Oakland beats say community policing is failing to deliver on its promise. Kendall Moalem, secretary of the Golden Gate Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, said the recent rash of burglaries is an example of how the police department is failing to communicate with residents and channel community support. Because her beat’s problem solving officer does not participate in the neighborhood’s online message boards, Moalem said, the officer misses potential leads made available by residents, as well as the chance to assign tasks to residents that could help identify the culprits. “The community is active and openly willing to cooperate with OPD,” Moalem said. “but it more often seems like we’re viewed as a problem rather than a partner.”
Larry Benson, chair of the Golden Gate Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) said that communication with the police department only flows in one direction—from citizens to cops. The community is doing its part, Benson said, by actively communicating its concerns and priorities to the police. But he said the police are failing to inform the community of what’s being done to solve the problems. Benson feels that community input is “tolerated,” but does not lead to dialogue or concerted police action.
“There’s a level of commitment to the neighborhood that’s just not happening here,” Benson said. “I don’t think [community policing] is working the way it’s supposed to.”
The Roots of Community Policing
With roots in the 1960s civil rights movement, community policing describes both a philosophy of policing as well as the practices believed to foster a relationship between police and the community, such as outreach programs and having cops assigned to particular beats who work in crime prevention instead of responding to emergencies.
“Most departments that have made community policing a priority have tried to do a little of both,” said UC Berkeley law professor David Sklansky. “They have tried to make community policing a philosophy that permeates the department, but they have also defined certain officers whose job it is to manage community policing more directly.”
Sklansky, who has written about shifts in thinking about community policing, says that community policing officers’ basic responsibility is to make sure the department is reaching out and partnering with offices and individuals on the outside. “The traits that a good community police officer has to have are the kinds of traits you’d want to have in any officer,” Sklansky said, “an ability to talk to and work with a wide range of people, plus an ability to figure out how to engage with a diverse community. But an officer whose job it is to work with the community and figure out solutions probably needs those qualities even more so than other officers.”
When community policing works, citizens and the police become community partners, with information flowing between both sides leading to better law enforcement and crime prevention as well as the improvement of a neighborhood’s overall quality of life.
However, community policing requires a high degree of accountability and an overall restructuring of a police department. Sometimes, a department’s practices conflict with its stated commitment to community policing. “Anybody’s instinct is to keep information on a need-to-know basis, but that can be a bad idea,” says Sklansky. “Not just because the community can be kept abreast of what’s going on, but because the community can be a great source of information about suspects.”
Even though successful examples of community policing programs do exist, community policing is a slow process. “A lot of these are protracted problems that really need long-term solutions that are multi-agency,” said Claudia Albano, Neighborhood Service Manager in Oakland’s Office of the City Administrator. “You have to have people who have the time to do those types of projects as well as the desire.”
Albano directs the Neighborhood Services Coordinators or (NSCs), a group of city employees who work with the problem solving officers to the coordinate city agencies and resources outside of law enforcement. She noted that the success of the long-term approach can depend on how the police department is structured and how officers are monitored and evaluated. “It’s an organizational issue,” she said.
Is Community Policing Working Here?
Many NCPC chairs say Oakland’s community policing efforts are not meeting neighborhoods’ needs. In interviews with Oakland North, NCPC chairs reported not seeing their problem solving officer for weeks at a time, if at all. “I can’t see—no one can get to see—where those PSOs are spending their time,” said Golden Gate NCPC chair Larry Benson.
Don Link, chair of the Shattuck NCPC, said he’d be surprised if his PSO spent half of his patrol time inside the North Oakland beat’s limits. “I know for a fact PSOs are being used as extra labor pool for special projects,” Link said. Link said that over the past month, his beat’s PSO has been spending two days a week suppressing side shows in East Oakland. Resigned, Link said he’s okay with some deployment of PSOs outside their beats “as long as there is some give and take, some equity,” but said excesses are “not keeping with the spirit of Measure Y.”
Some NCPC members say they have a new PSO at each monthly meeting, resulting in a lack of continuity. Paul Gibson, president of research firm Gibson & Associates who recently presented an evaluation of Measure Y to Oakland city officials, said his team observed multiple instances of new problem solving officers arriving at NCPC meetings seemingly without any orientation regarding their new patrolling territory. “They really didn’t know whatsoever what the local issues were, what the hot priorities were,” said Gibson while presenting his report during a Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall last week, adding that in many instances the PSOs had to be oriented by NCPC members.
Others report that PSOs are unresponsive and insufficiently trained to handle complicated neighborhood situations. Benson said he always initiates contact with the PSO, and though emails and calls are usually responded to within 48 hours, the response is usually brief. Rating communication as mediocre, Benson said that, unless there are sufficient calls for service to back up the priorities discussed during NCPC meetings, the OPD will ignore that priority. “Unless you call, you are not going to get those services,” Benson said. “They have limited resources, and they are not going to release those resources.”
Link described a similar situation in his beat. When he calls his PSO’s cell phone, he said, he usually gets a voicemail, and three times out of four he won’t get a call back. But Link does not blame the PSO, with whom Link said he has worked effectively for the past three years, for the lack of communication. Link said the problem is that most PSOs haven’t been “trained with a business sense” that dictates that once you get a message, you call back. “It is unusual,” Link said, “to find a police officer who has that kind of sense for two-way communication.”
“There has to be that one-on-one personal relationship with the beat,” said Jose Dorado, past chair of the Maxwell Park NCPC in the Oakland Hills, who says it would sometimes take several hours or days for his PSO to get back to him. “I don’t have a lot of direct communication with the PSO. We put out [issues] on our listservs and we hope they see it,” Dorado said. “But can I pick up the phone and call my PSO, right now? Tomorrow at noon? No.”
Yet dissatisfaction among NCPC chairs is by no means uniform, with some NCPCs giving their beat’s PSO high marks. Nick Vigilante, chair of Oakland’s Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee and former chair of beat 13Z in Montclair, described his PSO as “outstanding,” and points to regular communication as a helpful means of solving chronic problems. He described a situation a few years back when his neighborhood had a problem with people quietly casing homes while soliciting and selling items door-to-door. Most vendors in the neighborhood were reputable, Vigilante said, but some but were operating without permits and determining which houses were empty during the day.
Vigilante said the PSO explained time was of the essence in this type of situation.“Our PSO said, ‘You know when these things happen, you have to call us,’” Vigilante said. “‘You can’t just tell me it happened two or three days later. If we are in the area, we can send someone out to deal with these people.’”
Beat 13Z’s PSO helped inform Montclair residents that soliciting without a license was illegal. She instructed residents who noticed this activity to send email messages to their Yahoo! listerv to let other neighbors know. This strategy led to the arrest of 10 people over a three-month period for soliciting without a permit in Montclair.
Vigilante notes he has his PSO’s cell phone number and can easily call her, a link other NCPC chairs said they don’t have. While Vigilante says he resists giving out his PSO’s number to the community to keep her from being overwhelmed, he does credit his PSO for letting the community members know they have options other than calling the police department’s main line. “We see her in the community doing her job and she takes an active interest,” he said.
Jacquee Castain, chair of beat 34X in Elmhurst, said that after a troubled period, community policing in her neighborhood has improved dramatically. During the tenures of former police chiefs Richard Word and Wayne Tucker, Castain said PSOs were not permitted to carry cellphones, leaving the NCPCs to call the non-emergency line at OPD headquarters in order to report issues. “I tell you, it really broke everything up,” she said. “If you have to go through the non-emergency number, you just don’t get an answer. The officers have other priorities.”
Castain said recent changes in the cell phone policy have brought renewed cooperation with her beat’s PSO, leading to progress in identifying and confronting endemic narcotic use and trafficking in her neighborhood. “Now that they have their cellphones back, we have been able to talk to them and get them to call us right back when things are going on,” she said. “It makes a difference when you can tell the officers who [suspects] are and where they are.”
A Problem of Turnover, Training and Equipment
On January 12, when Gibson and the other private consultants who conducted the most recent Measure Y evaluation presented their work at a city Public Safety Committee meeting, it provided a mixed picture of how Oakland’s community policing program performed during the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Though the report characterized the OPD’s implementation of community policing as “congruent with best practices,” and pointed to several examples of successful collaboration between police and community, it also highlighted several inconsistencies and problems throughout the city, including rapid turnover among problem solving officers, failures in transition planning, a lack of equipment, insufficient training and preparation, and inconsistent “time on the beat” and patrolling methods.
The study, prepared by Resource Development Associates (RDA) and two other Bay Area research firms, highlighted areas where the community policing program needs improvement. While noting that the police department had successfully reached its full complement of 63 officers working beats across the city, the study found that turnover among PSOs remains high and the hiring and training of replacement officers “does not adequately consider the interests of community policing.”
The study noted that officers are assigned to their beats with only 40 hours of in-house training in community policing techniques. “The 40-hour community policing training does not sufficiently address core elements of the initiative and is not offered frequently enough to prepare problem solving officers to adequately do their jobs,” Gibson said. In addition, the study found that these officers are not given enough incentive to remain in their positions for long, leading to frequent interruptions of service and a consistent need to restart efforts.
RDA reviewed the police department’s assignment rosters from 2007-2009 and found that only eight of the original 57 problem solving officers remained at their posts two years later. One-third of these officers had transferred to another assignment in the first five months alone. Officers that do remain, the study found, reported a shortage of key equipment, most notably police vehicles, resulting in PSOs spending less time on their beat.
Overall, the study concluded that the Oakland Police Department needs to look closely at its protocols and standards related to training, support and accountability for its problem solving officers. Most notably, the research team found the department lacked comprehensive fiscal and operational data on the projects problem solving officers undertake and the steps they used to resolve them. “Opportunities exist for using beat crime data to educate residents and build their understanding of neighborhood and citywide crime patterns,” the study concluded, but without this quantitative data, the researchers found it difficult to assess how well the department was using its limited community policing resources.
Oakland Police Chief of Staff Sergeant Ray Backman said Tuesday that his office is conducting an assessment of the particular issues raised in the report and was unable comment on specifics until the department’s review was complete.
Department spokesman Officer Jeff Thomason said that, in addition to the recommendations in the Measure Y evaluation report, the department was nearing completion on its own public safety survey and would release Chief Anthony Batts’ new public safety plan in the coming weeks. Thomason said the survey, conducted by strategic consultant Scott Bryant, who worked with Batts in Long Beach, would identify key concerns from community groups and stakeholders. Thomason also said that plans are in the works to bring Dr. Alex Norman, professor emeritus of social welfare at U.C.L.A, to the OPD to lead a series of training workshops for officers and staff on community policing.
Yet Thomason cautioned that the department does not have the resources to tackle every problem cited in the study. “The community will want 200 different things and we are going to rank them to identify the top five things and set about to do those things really well,” said Thomason. “But with our force numbers dropping we are not going to be able to tackle all of them right away.” Thomason reiterated that Batts’ foremost concern is suppressing violent crime, focusing on “gangs, guns, and drugs.”
The dropping number of sworn officers on the street is a serious concern for the department. The OPD currently fields 788 officers—including Chief Batts and other senior management—for a city of over 400,000 people, meaning Oakland has fewer cops per capita than other major California cities, including San Francisco and Long Beach. Yet with an average of four or five officers leaving the department each month due to injury, retirement, or resignations, within a year the department could drop below 739 officers, the minimum required by law in order to keep the $9 million in Measure Y funding that sustains the 63 problem solving officers.
During last week’s Public Safety Committee meeting, Chief Batts said the new Measure Y evaluation pointed to problems that are not only “micro issues” related to PSOs, but “macro-issues for the organization as a whole.” He said the department is moving quickly to install “basic management prerogatives” to resolve the issues and highlighted the importance of accountability, of “having a feel” for what every police officer does with their time. “Some of the standards that were addressed for PSOs should be for all police officers as a whole,” Batts said.
Because of the department’s chronic understaffing, some residents feel that PSOs are not spending as much time in their beats as they are supposed to, a problem councilwoman Jane Brunner emphasized after listening to the Measure Y evaluation. “I’m concerned that we don’t know what the NSCs or the PSOs do,” she said. “I do not know what they’re doing in my district. We don’t know the amount of time the PSOs are in their beat, and we have been asking this for a long time.”
Councilmember Nancy Nadel expressed concern over the lack of incentives and career tracks for officers who want to stay in community policing. “As a matter of fact, we have so many incentives for them not to want to stay in community policing,” she said, adding the department must find ways to encourage community police officers to stay and feel “proud of their work.”
Many NCPC chairs interviewed by Oakland North expressed similar concerns, and some even said they felt in the past that the police department intentionally obstructed relationships between PSOs and the community. Don Link, of the Shattuck NCPC, said he believed the OPD under former police chief Wayne Tucker took deliberate action to “rein in the PSOs” to prevent them from “going native” and to reaffirm chain of command. Larry Benson, from the Golden Gate NCPC, said he believed that the previous chief of police hindered the communication between beat officers and residents, despite his professed support for community policing. “I believe in his heart he worked against it,” Benson said, adding he hopes the situation will improve under Chief Batts.
What Will Batts Do?
Chief Batts arrived in Oakland with an impressive record from his term as the head of the Long Beach Police Department. The homicide rate in the Southern California city declined by almost half during his eight-year tenure, and shooting incidents involving police officers declined 70 percent, according to the mayor’s office.
On many public occasions since taking over as Oakland’s new police chief, Batts has cited a commitment to community policing as one reason for Long Beach’s success, and articulated a vision for community policing in Oakland that encompasses the whole department rather than specifically designated officers. After listening to the Measure Y report during the Public Safety Committee meeting last Tuesday, the new chief reiterated this position. “The philosophy here is not community policing for 63 officers, but is community policing for the whole organization, from the police chief to every detective and every employee,” Batts said.
However, it’s still unclear how this top-to-bottom change in the department would be implemented, and Batts has repeatedly added a caveat: before bolstering community policing, he says the city must first go through a period of strict crime suppression to deal with the huge demand for police service. Batts says he believes it is impossible to do the kind of preventive work involved in community policing if police officers are constantly playing catch-up.
Violent crime in Oakland did drop significantly in 2009. According to end-of-year statistics released by the OPD, serious crimes—known as Part 1 offenses—dropped by 10 percent compared with 2008, including a 12 percent drop in homicides and 25 percent drop in assaults with a deadly weapon. However, Oakland’s overall violent crime rate remains high, with 107 homicides in 2009. Residential burglary increased 7 percent and forcible rape went up 8 percent.
Police feel that they are still behind in processing calls for help. According to OPD numbers Batts cited during a public meeting in early January, the department has a backlog of 1,900 domestic violence cases waiting to be processed. During last Tuesday’s meeting, Batts said the department does not have enough officers to keep up with “basic demands of call for service,” adding that it isn’t uncommon to have “100 calls pending in queue, not being dispatched.”
“Until we can cure that problem, we can’t do community policing,” Batts said. “It will be left for the 63 officers, and the rest of the officers will be chasing calls all night long.”
Batts has promised to deal with demand for police resources through better monitoring, optimization and prioritization of the department’s resources. But some fear that without extra resources, this may turn out to be a very long battle. During the same Public Safety Committee meeting, Councilmember Pat Kernighan pointed to the chronic shortage of patrol officers in Oakland and said the city was now looking at “less money, not more money.”
Councilmember Jane Brunner has publicly advocated for a new ballot measure to sustain the department without cutting officers, but some fear the gradual reductions will only increase the burden on the force unless the city pays for a new training academy—an expensive project costing between $3-4 million in order to put 30 to 40 new officers on the street.
Kernighan said she hopes Batts’ plans will be successful, but added, although “we’d all like the entire department to do community policing, it has never happened, despite everybody’s best intention.” According to the Kernighan, Measure Y was drafted precisely because the police department has repeatedly failed to deliver across-the-board community policing in the past, and stressed the importance of maintaining “at least one cop in every beat who’s really doing community policing.”
Additionally, a pending lawsuit against the city contests the notion that all the money from Measure Y is really going toward community policing. In April 2008, Oakland lawyer Marleen Sacks filed a lawsuit in Alameda Superior Court alleging that the city improperly used Measure Y funds for police activities other than community policing. Judge Frank Roesch ruled in 2009 that the city must reimburse the Measure Y fund for taxpayer monies used for recruitment, hiring and training new officers “not placed directly into Measure Y positions.” The city appealed, and has yet to release an audit determining exactly how much must be reimbursed.
The PSO System, Moving Forward
Ultimately, the biggest problem with the PSO system may be that there’s not enough data to understand who is doing what.
Last week’s Measure Y evaluation stressed that NCPC members, civic leaders, city officials and even supervisors within the OPD appear not to have sufficient data to track problem solving officers’ activities. During the report’s presentation last Tuesday, Paul Gibson of research firm Gibson & Associates pointed to inconsistencies regarding the amount of time different PSOs spend in their beats, the training they receive, and their knowledge about their beat’s priorities. Most of all, Gibson said, the absence of hard data forced the evaluators to rely on anecdotal evidence. “In order to understand what an officer was doing in the course of the day, and what kinds of problems they were addressing, there was just no data to verify this,” Gibson said.
Patricia Bennett, whose firm Research Development Associates also worked on the Measure Y report, said later that the OPD didn’t withhold information from the researchers—on the contrary, she described the department as “responsive and candid.” The problem, she said, was that as far as she could tell, the necessary information did not exist. As an example, she said that it was impossible to obtain “the kind of breakdown on payroll” needed to find out where PSOs were when their salaries were being paid by Measure Y funds. “There simply did not appear to be any way to get that data,” Bennett said.
This could be changing. Last year, Bennett’s firm implemented a web database where problem solving officers can maintain a record of their daily activities, including problems faced, solutions implemented and results achieved. This first phase of the database is already running, and information can be added and accessed by any police officer or supervisor.
Bennett said her firm is now working with the OPD to implement the second part of the database, a program to analyze the collected data and produce reports that are easily understandable. The police department (and potentially other agencies) could use these reports to evaluate specific problem solving officers and methods. If approved, the second part of the database would cost the city $85,000, putting the total cost of the program at $120,000, Bennett said. It could be up and running a month after approval.
Bennett said the PSO reports could be made partially accessible to the public, but that feature is not yet part of the program. If the reports were made public, it would be possible, for example, for NCPC members to print reports regarding their PSO’s performance before each monthly meeting. Bennet said there have been some preliminary talks with OPD about the public feature, but she’s unsure if the police department intends to install it.
Accurate data regarding PSO performance—particularly if the data is shared with civilian players in the community policing process—could do much to address the issue of transparency and accountability. But the implementation of this program and other changes will depend on how willing the OPD’s new management team is to allow that level of transparency and accountability.
Jim Dexter, chair of Beat 13Y, cautions that while he and his NCPC are “comfortable” with the activities of their PSO and how well he responds to their priorities, the lack of comprehensive information from the OPD will make it hard for them to gauge the overall success of the program citywide.
“No one in the public can say how much a PSO is working for their beat,” he said. “How many hours are they on the beat? How many hours they are pulled off to do other duties?” Dexter asked. “There’s just a vast world of darkness where we don’t yet know what’s happening.”
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