“I want people to feel like I felt when I was a kid—to be able to play outside without being worried about gunfire or getting run over by a speeding car,” says Lieutenant Leronne Armstrong breaking out into a wistful smile, his expressive eyes crinkling at the edges.
After first working as a probation officer, Armstrong has made a twenty-year career in the Oakland Police Department, and is currently one of its highest-paid lieutenants. “I became a police officer because I believe I could be a role model to the young black men I saw become absorbed in the criminal justice system as a probation officer,” he says.
Today, Armstrong is the president of the Oakland Black Officers Association (OBOA), a group within the Oakland Police Department open to officers and civil employees. He joined it as a young officer, realizing the value in having mentors to advise him on his own career growth, and began to hold positions of leadership within the OBOA as he climbed the ranks of the police department.
The Oakland Black Officers Association celebrated its 44th anniversary this September. The association was started in 1970 by a handful of African American officers who joined the department in the post-Civil Rights era. The paradigm of a predominately Irish, Italian and German police department was beginning to change—much like Oakland itself. This small group of officers was the first to join the department, laying a strong foundation the OBOA today. “The association was started to help address injustices that were occurring within the department, to ensure that all officers were having an equal opportunity to be considered for assignments, and equal access to promotions,” says Armstrong.
The OBOA currently represents 80 people, including civil employees. The Oakland Police Department has 126 African American officers, who make up about 18 percent of the force, according to OPD records from September. About 42 percent of the force is Caucasian, and Latino and Asian officers make up about 21 and 12 percent of the force, respectively. Today, other minority groups have followed suit and created similar associations—like the Asian Officers Association and the Hispanic Officers Association—to represent the hodge-podge of cultures that makes Oakland one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.
According to a recent New York Times article that quotes the most recent data available from a 2007 survey, minorities make up a quarter of police staffing nationwide. The article also notes that in hundreds of US cities, the percentage of Caucasian officers employed is disproportionately much greater than in the surrounding community.
Armstrong first joined the Oakland Black Officers Association when he left his position with the Alameda County probation department to become an OPD officer. Armstrong says he remembers an increase in the number of African American officers joining the force over the last 10 years, but says he hasn’t seen many African Americans enter the department more recently.
Armstrong is an Oakland native and is a big supporter of employing officers who are Oakland residents. “While I believe developing a police department that is inclusive of all the cultures it represents—with a sense of fairness across the board—is important, I also strongly believe in hiring locally,” he says. “I sometimes worry that Oakland residents are overlooked when it comes to becoming officers, or even when it comes to promoting to positions of leadership among the department,” he continues, adding, “Who could be better at understanding the challenges Oakland faces than its local residents?”
For Armstrong, diverse hiring is not about the police department meeting a certain quota for an ethnic group. Armstrong and the OBOA advocate for diversifying the police force to show Oaklanders that their community is being represented on the force. And for Armstrong, it is also important to change the public perception of the police department to make sure people feel that it is trustworthy and that officers can treat people fairly.
“It’s important for officers to be treating you with dignity and respect, and if they don’t do that, there’s a process to deal with it,” says Armstrong, referring to the department’s review process for handling allegations of bad actions by officers. “In a city that has a history of distrust the police department has to make these kinds of concessions, and that’s the only fair way that you can police a city like this.”
A brief exodus of officers leaving the station interrupts Armstrong; they have just completed a diversity training he was sitting in on. Most of the officers pile out, while a handful stick around to ask him questions. Armstrong is naturally charismatic and approachable. He finishes talking to an officer, then without skipping a beat returns to talking about the importance of gaining the trust of the community by building a relationship founded on respect. Armstrong intends to work on this by assisting with the development of OPD crime prevention and youth mentorship programs.
“You create relationships by dialoguing with people, and this teaches you to respect people and understand that they have a voice in public safety too, that it’s not solely the police’s responsibility,” he says earnestly. The OBOA has developed a scholarship program that has distributed over $50,000 to students in some of the Oakland Unified School District’slowest-performing schools.
In addition to organizing school supply give-away events, the association also adopts several families in need during the holiday season and provides them with holiday meals and gifts for the children. Armstrong’s eyes light up when he broaches this subject. “Peace is sometimes gained by doing kind gestures,” he says. He notes that it is one of his favorite ways of demonstrating to the Oakland community that the police are “not just here to take people to jail, or be seen as an occupying force in the community.”
Within the OPD, the association also makes it a goal to mentor young African American officers, like Officer Elton Morris, who was assigned to the Youth and School Services Unit of the OPD, a fairly new unit dedicated to keeping at-risk students in school. This unit maintains school safety zones around the perimeter of campuses to ensure students aren’t being harassed by Oakland residents or sex workers, and also visits truant students’ homes, and engages parents, community members and students in dialogue with the officers patrolling their schools.
Morris has been an OPD officer for eight years, and joined the OBOA shortly after graduating from the academy. He started in the patrol unit, then spent some years on the gang unit, and is now one of two officers assigned to cover the Youth and School Services Unit in East Oakland, an area populated predominantly by African Americans and Latinos. Morris is 36 years old, and says he is enjoying his unit assignment because he feels being a mentor for at-risk students while they’re still young can really make a difference in the future.
“I get to work with the youth most at-risk, and maybe without this early type of intervention in their lives, I would have to deal with these same youth as young adults,” he says. “By then it could be too late to get them on track.” Morris says he feels fortunate to have mentors like Armstrong, who also happens to be his unit Lieutenant, who can guide him and give him advice navigating the process of promotions. “I am tremendously appreciative of this opportunity and what officers went through to make sure we could hold these jobs today,” he says.
Over the next three years, the Oakland Police Department and the city of Oakland plan to achieve the highest level of officer staffing since 2010. Oakland also received a $1.87 million grant from the Department of Justice to fund the hiring of 15 new police officers. Based on the OPD’s recent graduating class of 35 new officers, the OPD seems to be making it a priority to ensure hiring from Oakland; ten are Oakland residents. Of the 35 new officers, 15 new officers are Latino, ten are white, six are African-American, three are Asian and one is Indian.
For now, officers like Armstrong and Morris are eager to continue to build upon the legacy that the OBOA has built for them. “We are excited to arrive at this milestone of 44 years of existence, and it is because we realize the tremendous lengths the officers who formed the OBOA made, which allow officers like us to hold the positions we hold today,” says Armstrong. “We want to honor this by continuing to support the success of future generations of African American officers through the OBOA.”