Council hears two differing appeals for police tactics in Fruitvale
on May 4, 2011
Two public safety debates dominated the Oakland City Council meeting on Tuesday, drawing out community members with differing views on policing in the Fruitvale district as local merchants pleaded for increased policing and other neighbors turned out to oppose the planned Fruitvale gang injunction. The two discussions bookended a lengthy examination of plans to remodel the Telegraph Avenue McDonald’s in North Oakland.
First, a group of Fruitvale merchants used the open forum period to express concerns over public safety in their neighborhood. At the first meeting since the April 8 shooting death of Otaez restaurant owner Jesús “Chuy” Campos, merchants asked for a greater police presence in the neighborhood.
“They are giving us a lot of promises and talk about the budget,” said Alex Pimental, who led the group of merchants. Pimental said the group’s two priorities are increased numbers of police officers walking and biking patrols in Fruitvale, and a surveillance camera program similar to the one in Oakland’s Chinatown.
Speaking before the council, Pimental said businesses in the Fruitvale district bring in about $1 million in tax revenue for the city, but that safety has not been a priority for the city.
About ten merchants spoke before the council, including Eva Peña, who said her family has owned a bakery in Fruitvale for 15 years. “I was robbed at gunpoint not once but twice,” Peña said. “I want to feel safe again, I want everybody to feel safe again.”
The merchants’ message contrasted with that of another group with members from Fruitvale—the Stop the Injunction Coalition. The coalition has been active in protesting and appealing the North Oakland gang injunction and another pending suit that would create an injunction targeting members of the Norteño gang in Fruitvale. The injunctions are civil lawsuits that name alleged gang members and restrict their activities within a designated “safety zone.” Since the June, 2010, implementation of the North Oakland injunction, no arrests have been made to enforce it.
The council had scheduled a presentation from City Attorney John Russo and Police Chief Anthony Batts on the injunctions for the end of the Tuesday meeting, in what would have be the first time the matter came before the full council. Many merchants left the meeting after public forum, but opponents of the injunctions waited for the city to discuss two more hours of city business in order to respond to the presentation. (District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner recused herself from the discussion so that the presentation could go forward, because she is a partner in the law firm Siegel & Yee, which is representing those named on the gang injunctions)
But instead of hearing a presentation, three hours into the meeting the council heard a letter from Batts and Russo, read aloud by Council President Larry Reid, saying that they would not use staff hours to give their presentation twice. The council members who are on the Public Safety Committee previously heard the presentation at their April 26 meeting.
Members of the council and the public alike expressed dismay at not hearing the presentation, with District 6 councilmember Desley Brooks calling Russo and Batts’ absense “inexcusable.”
Despite the lack of a presentation, the council invited audience members to speak, as over 40 community members had signed up to comment. Yolanda Wong, one of five attorneys representing those named on the injunctions, challenged Russo’s estimates of the civil proceeding’s cost, which were released in a report when Russo and Batts gave their presentation to the Public Safety Committee. City Attorney spokesperson Alex Katz had previously said that the office has spent $127,000 on the injunction, and a total of 2,385 hours on both injunctions, and predicts no further expenses other than the value of time spent by city staff and police.
At the council meeting, Wong said that with the internal labor of putting staff on a multi-defendant lawsuit, the cost going forward would reach $1 million. “In a budget crisis I think it’s important to evaluate whether you’re getting the benefit that’s been promised or whether it is an empty process,” Wong said.
Other speakers talked about complaints of racial profiling and police harassment that members of the Stop the Injunction Coalition have brought forward since the first injunction took effect last year. Speakers asked for support for community programs in place of gang injunctions.
“These guys need jobs, this community needs healing,” Oakland resident Aurora Lopez said.
After the public comment period, Councilmember Brooks questioned the City Attorney’s authority to pursue the injunctions without council ratification or direction. “Regardless of how you feel about injunctions,” Brooks said, “there’s a charter that determines how we’re supposed to operate.
District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel urged the rest of the council to form an opinion on the injunctions. The council had not previously discussed or voted on injunctions, and Nadel took the opportunity to speak against them. “If [police] are stopping people unnecessarily, then we are contributing to the problem,” Nadel said.
The council agreed to put the injunctions on a future meeting agenda for a vote. Bringing the meeting to a close, Reid who has not voiced an opinion on the injunctions, said, “We’ll schedule it for an action item, and everybody will see where I stand on gang injunctions.”
In other business, the council heard presentations on the proposed remodel of a McDonald’s on 45th Street and Telegraph Avenue. The 34-year-old restaurant, which city staff confirmed was operating as a 24-hour drive thru without a permit until 2010, sits in the middle of the stretch of Telegraph Avenue in the Temescal district. The restaurant now has a conditional use permit to operate all night, but its owners would like to remodel the building, which owner Edward Smith called “an eyesore.” The proposed design would reposition the building so that its back would face the street, and run the drive thru along the sidewalk on Telegraph Avenue.
Several members of the public who filed an appeal to the proposed McDonald’s redesign spoke before the council. While almost every speaker emphasized their wish for the restaurant to succeed, they took issue with the proposed layout of the building and drive thru because they felt it would make the block less walkable. “All we are asking for is a design that meets the street,” said John Gatewood, a community activist who led the appeal.
Rebecca Saltzman, who opposes the new design, said she was worried about safety issues caused by the “moat of cars” that pedestrians on the sidewalk would have to walk through to get to the restaurant. “The idea that accidents only happen when cars are going at high speeds is not true,” Saltzman said.
Councilmember Brunner, who represents the North Oakland, took the side of the appellants. “There’s a reason that College Avenue is successful, that Piedmont Avenue is successful, that parts of Temescal are successful,” Brunner said, “and that’s because it is interactive with people on the street. It is a friendly place to be, people want to walk around it.”
After an hour of discussion, the council agreed with Brunner’s motion to continue the public hearing until the council’s next meeting on May 17 with the intent to bring the appellants and Smith together to reach a compromise. “I am confident with a little more conversation the two sides can get closer,” said District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf.
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