Tuesday evening’s Public Safety Committee meeting was dominated by two highly anticipated budget items: A proposed ordinance to ban the use of bullhooks—a tool used to discipline elephants—in Oakland, and a report from Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent on the protest activity in the city last week. The protests were in reaction to a grand jury’s decision to not indict the white police officer who fatally shot Mike Brown, a young, unarmed, African American man in Ferguson, Missouri. Protestors took to the streets of Oakland, sometimes blocking the freeway, and smaller group of people vandalized stores in the Temescal District.
All council members on the committee were present: Lynette Gibson McElhaney of District 3, Dan Kalb of District 1, Chairperson Noel Gallo of District 5 and Mayor-Elect Libby Schaaf of District 4.
Whent’s report provided information from the Oakland Police Department (OPD) regarding protest activity on the nights of November 24 to 26, including the total of arrests made, the number of businesses vandalized and information on police strategy and challenges during those nights. “Over the three nights, we made a total of 169 arrests,” Whent said. “Those arrests are more than any other police department in the country that we are aware of for protest activity last week.”
According to Whent, about 48 percent of those who were arrested claimed to be Oakland residents, but he was reluctant to confirm the exact number because the department has found that some people do not provide their real address. “Many of the protestors were non-violent,” Whent said. “However, at times we certainly dealt with numerous groups of individuals absolutely committed to vandalism and violence.”
Whent said the majority of arrests were made for obstruction of a public roadway —the freeway—and refusal to leave after a dispersal announcement was made by the police. He added that four burglary arrests were made related to people looting business, ten arrests were for vandalism, and 10 to 12 arrests were for battery of a police officer or for resisting arrest. Whent said that police officers were hit with rocks, bottles and bricks during the protests. The most serious injury was to an officer who sustained a mild concussion after being hit in the face with a brick. Whent added that the officer’s helmet absorbed most of the brick’s impact.
The OPD had 350 of its officers on the street and received mutual aid from the Alameda and Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol. Despite the aid, Whent said the number of protesters outnumbered police officers during most of the days of protest. According to the department’s count, on the first day there were 1,500 to 2,000 protestors, on the second day there were about 400 and on the third day there were 200 to 250 protestors.
A total of 23 businesses had broken windows and a total of five were looted, Whent said. “The biggest lesson I would say we learned last week, is that we have to move faster,” Whent said. “These groups move very, very quickly.”
The Temescal District was the most affected. The crowd smashed windows of the Kelly-Moore paint store and several large tins of paint were stolen. The intersection and storefronts were splashed and painted, according to reports by Oakland North last week. Protesters also broke windows at the nearby McDonalds, Subway and T-Mobile store.
After Whent provided his report, Gibson and Kalb spoke about the issue of ethnic profiling by police officers saying that in Oakland and at a national level there have been previous violent incidents between young men of color and the police.
“All across this country we have young people with their arms up, with their hands up. Don’t shoot, “ Gibson said as she held her hands in the air—just as Mike Brown did before he was fatally shot to signify that he was unarmed. “This has been the rallying cry because there is an epidemic in this country of too many black men and brown men being killed with their interaction with police officers,” she continued, as the audience began to clap.
Gibson said that people have a right to protest peacefully, practice free speech and reflect on the issue. “In Oakland, to me, what’s heartbreaking is that there has been people who have not been peaceful in their protest,” Gibson said. She also added that damages by protestors will cost the city money, not the state.
“We all want to avoid the violent behavior,” Kalb said. “Sufficient force could reduce the inappropriate behavior.”
Whent said the police are currently working on retrieving and reviewing video and photos posted on the Internet and recorded by business security cameras to use as evidence and to find more people who were involved in crimes during the protests.
The topic on the agenda that took up the most time—two hours—and elicited some of the most emotional reactions from speakers and the audience was the Bullhook Ban Ordinance proposed by Kalb and Noel Gallo of District 5. A bullhook is 2- to 3-foot pole with a metal hook and spike at the end used by some animal trainers to poke elephants in sensitive areas such as the ears, neck and legs for training purposes.
Opponents of the bullhook, including organizations such as the Oakland Zoo, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), support the ban and argued that the bullhook is a physiological and physical weapon used against elephants. Other speakers also said that the bullhook has no place in Oakland and that children should not be taught to harm animals for entertainment, criticizing the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, which still uses the tool.
“When we abandoned the use of the bullhook, one of our most dangerous elephants [at the zoo], became the sweetest of our elephants when she realized she would no longer be disciplined with a bullhook,” said Dr. Joel Parrot, the executive director of the Oakland Zoo. “If the circus comes to Oakland, they need to leave the bulhook at the gate,” continued Parrot, holding a bullhook in his hand while speaking to the committee. “This bullhook is not Oakland. It is not who we are. It is not us.”
Representatives from Ringling Brothers also spoke at the meeting and argued that a bullhook does not hurt elephants and is needed for people to train and communicate with their elephants. Tom Albert, the Vice President of Government Relations for Feld Entertainment, Inc. the parent company of Ringling Brothers, said the bullhorn is not a weapon. “The use of the bullhook is all part of a process of developing a relationship with the animal,” Albert said.
Albert also said that the circus would no longer come to Oakland if the bullhook is banned, because the trainers may not be able to handle the elephants in an enclosed space without the tool. “Our elephants are a huge part of our show,” Albert said. “No one has come up with an alternative method to use in a performance setting.”
Maria Ortiz told the committee she is a single mother who has worked at the Coliseum for several years, and if the circus does not come to Oakland it would affect her and her coworkers economically. Councilmember Gibson also considered the economic impact the city would have if the circus stopped coming to town, along with its sister shows Disney on Ice and Motocross who are under the same parent company, Feld Entertainment.
The committee voted to advance the ordinance for the full council to consider at a future meeting. McElhaney was the only councilmember to abstain on the vote, saying she needed to see more information, including financial reports and information on how elephants are affected by the hook.
In other business, the committee heard two different informational reports from the OPD, one on fireworks and another on tracing guns used in crimes.
“Every year, July 4th and New Years Eve are plagued with a tremendous amount of fireworks activity and celebratory gunfire,” Whent said. He added that the OPD prioritizes the patrolling of gunfire activity, but said they are concerned with fireworks as well –fireworks are illegal in Oakland and have been the cause of fires. “The scope of the problem is massive. If I had five times the officers that I do, I don’t think we would be able to cite enough people to make the problem go away,” said Whent.
This New Years, the OPD will use some undercover personnel for fireworks enforcement and will specifically target the people setting off the larger unsanctioned aerial displays. Whent also said the fireworks problem requires a huge education campaign—beyond the capabilities of the OPD—to explain the legalities and dangers of fireworks to the public. A handful of Oakland resident spoke to the committee about how the fireworks affect them, their pets, and neighbors.
Lieutenant Brandon Wehrly from the OPD’s Criminal Investigations Division provided a report on the guns used in crimes that the department has recovered as well as their efforts to trace the history of the gun, including the state of origin and buyers and sellers between January 2012 and to October 27 of this year. To keep track of recovered guns and to gather data, the OPD submits gun trace requests to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the National Tracing Center (NTC) through an electronic system called eTrace. Every year, the OPD receives a report from the ATF with data about the guns the department recovered, which are also known as “crime guns” if they have been used in the commission of a crime.
The department recovers roughly 700 crime guns a year, Wherly said. He added that the two most common firearms recovered by the department are semiautomatic firearms and revolvers, and the most common are 9 millimeter and 40 caliber guns. “California is the biggest state that supplies our firearms, the next two are Nevada and Arizona,” Wherly said.
The last Special Safety Committee of the year will be on December 16.