A new college class offers young Oaklanders and people of color a career path to law enforcement

Former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan teaches his first class at Merritt Community College's pre-academy program.

Former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan teaches his first class at Merritt Community College's pre-academy program.

“This is where it starts,” former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan tells his students. “Your reputation began here today.”

Speaking in a measured tone, Jordan slowly paces in front of his desk in a Spanish classroom filled to capacity. It’s his first lecture at Merritt Community College’s new law enforcement pre-academy program. Inspirational quotes from Dolores Huerta and Cornel West line the walls; Jordan clicks through a PowerPoint while facing a mural of four determined-looking revolutionaries, each armed with sombreros and bandoliers. When he calls roll, approximately 26 students—most of them men of color under thirty—each stand and state their name, hometown and shirt size, then briefly describe their career goals. According to Jordan, about 22 of them hope to join the Oakland Police Department.

Developed in partnership with the department, Merritt’s new 13-week intensive program is designed to give aspiring law enforcement officers hands-on experience and position them for success at local police academies. The course was created by Margaret Dixon, Merritt’s Administration of Justice Chair and a retired OPD officer; she watches the beginning of Jordan’s lecture from the doorway. Jordan will teach the class with the help of more than a dozen active and former members of the OPD and Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.

While the pre-academy doesn’t specifically recruit minority students, Dixon and Jordan hope it will motivate Oakland residents of color to join their city’s police force. In a report to the interim city commissioner last February, current Police Chief Sean Whent cited the class as one of several departmental initiatives to diversify its staff. While Oakland’s population is 28 percent African American, the report states that African American officers make up only 18 percent of the OPD. Only 8 percent of Oakland’s officers actually live in the city, according to OPD personnel manager Cecilia Belue.

In a police department whose officers’ past use of force against minorities fueled generations of distrust, Dixon and Jordan are both aware that a career in the OPD can be a hard sell for locals. “The perception of law enforcement in general is not good,” said Jordan in an interview. “Police officers in the past were considered warriors. The shift in the dialog is you want them to be guardians—and in order to accomplish that you need people from the community.”

And on that first Wednesday night, some of Jordan’s students seem to agree with him. “We need more people who look like us,” says Chris Jackson, 25, leaning forward in his seat. “There’s a fear of safety with minorities being killed, and I think I can help bridge the gap.”

In class, Jackson sits in the back and asked questions: Why does San Francisco have a higher officer to civilian ratio than Oakland does? Why don’t Oakland voters feel that safety is a top priority?

After class, Jackson is shy but focused. A West Oakland native who entered the foster system at age two, he says he hopes to join the department to become a positive role model in his neighborhood. “I wanted to be nothing like my biological parents,” he says. For the time being, though, he says he hasn’t told many people about his ambitions “for safety reasons.”

“I’m upfront with my friends and real family members,” he continues. “I don’t want it to come as a surprise.” He says he doesn’t want people to end up wondering: “Was he giving information when he was around us?”

Law enforcement is never particularly popular, Jordan said in an interview, but he thinks the level of distrust towards the police in Oakland is unique. “It’s cultural,” he said. “It’s very cultural.” He attributes it to the legacy of the Black Panther Party: “They shot some of our officers and we shot them back,” Jordan said. And he blames it on the toxic effect of the “Riders,” four officers who were accused of beating and planting evidence on West Oakland residents in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city paid $10.9 million to 119 plaintiffs in the resulting civil suit, and the OPD is still under federal supervision. Jordan says Oakland residents are skeptical that the OPD can stop crime effectively after so many years of corrosively high crime rates, and he says that the department’s “combative relationship during crowd control incidents” has done little to restore the public’s trust.

So it’s not news to Jordan that his students have chosen a stigmatized career path. He said that a few of his own friends and family members ostracized him when he joined the police force. “It makes it easier for you to do your job,” Jordan said. “You don’t have to worry about those people.”

Jordan worked for the OPD for 25 years, serving as chief for two of them. He resigned from his post in 2013 for undisclosed medical reasons. He said he and his family were motivated to move from Oakland to Contra Costa County after he arrested a man for petty theft early one morning, and then ran into him at the grocery store later that day. “I like to escape to a place where I don’t have to deal with being recognized,” he said.

According to Stanford law professor David Sklansky, the co-director of Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center, diversifying police departments can find themselves “caught in a Catch-22.” “When you’re significantly less diverse than the community you serve, it makes it all the harder to gain their trust,” he said. “And it’s hard to diversify when minorities don’t trust the police department.”

Diversifying a police department can improve it, Sklansky said. Officers of color bring new perspectives to their departments, creating a more creative internal culture where officers go beyond conventional wisdom to solve problems. The police force and the public it serves are in a better position to relate to each other, he said. But “the diversification of police departments is not a magic bullet, and it doesn’t solve all problems,” Sklansky said. “Whenever people join their organization there can be a tendency for them to assimilate, and police departments have very strong cultures.” Police departments need to work to make minority recruits feel welcome, he said, so internal leadership is critically important.

Finding recruits who meet the OPD’s standards can be difficult. According to Belue, the department has received 5,113 applications so far this year and has only accepted 15 percent of them for its academy. Many students struggle with the written test, said Dixon, which is why the pre-academy puts a particular emphasis on report writing. They are also dedicating a seminar to “overcoming negative events in your background,” as Jordan puts it in his lecture; academy applicants can be eliminated for spotty credit checks or outstanding traffic tickets. Other subjects of study will include report writing, radio procedures, police ethics and community relations. Dixon said the goal is to give students an experience that resembles academies’ curriculums as much as possible. “They get an idea of what they’re getting into,” she said.

Provided that they make it through the academy, OPD officers enter a department that is overextended and understaffed. Oakland maintains a ratio of only 176 officers to every 100,000 people, according to a recent comparative report published by the San Francisco’s City Performance Unit. In a memo submitted to the city administrator in April, Chief Whent stated that OPD declined to assign 80 percent of all reported robberies and 97 percent of all reported burglaries to an investigator in 2014; the department received reports of 7,022 robbery and burglary incidents, but only had 13 investigators available to pursue them.

In his lecture, Jordan tells his students that future OPD officers should expect mandatory overtime. And then there’s the attrition rate. “In November of 2008 we had 836 officers,” he says. “That lasted all of about two weeks. People left, got fired, were injured. The following year we lost four officers due to death—in one incident.” The OPD currently has 722 officers; according to an FBI report in 2014, Oakland should have about 1,100 given the city’s crime rate.

At the same news conference in which Merritt celebrated the launch of the pre-academy program, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced plans to hire 40 more OPD officers and committed to staffing the department at 800 officers by the next three years. Oakland voters approved Measure Z last November, which allocates $12 million annually to OPD staffing and community outreach initiatives.

But not everyone thinks that a larger police force will make Oakland residents safer. “Our long-range goal has to be replacing this system with a system that makes people feel more safe,” said activist Cat Brooks, a founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, a group that works to expose and eliminate police brutality. “And if you go into most communities of color the police doesn’t make them feel safe—they make them feel terrorized.”

Like Jackson, Brooks also lives in West Oakland, but she doesn’t think hiring more officers of color will improve the OPD’s structural problems, even if individual officers have good intentions. “I think there are people that believe you have to enter the belly of the beast to change it,” Brooks said. “They believe that is the only way to end the horrible wars that are happening in our inner cities. [But] I don’t think you can enter the beast and tame it—I think that the beast just swallows you up.”

Dixon, the former OPD officer who founded Merritt’s pre-academy class, is also an Oakland native, and she’s “not blind to things that went on in terms of racism” in the department’s history, she said. But she says she sees the potential for change in the department’s culture that goes beyond minority recruitment. Both she and Jordan stress that the department’s old guard is gradually retiring, allowing a new generation of officers to reshape the relationship between the OPD and the public. Dixon’s students are “going to be the ones to make the change,” she said. “I’m not there anymore.”

“They’ve been [like] explorers,” she said. “A couple of them are only 18 years old.”

And some of them are young men like Elliot M., who is 27 and from Oakland and doesn’t want to give his last name (“I’ve got some family that are definitely on the other side of things,” he said) and who decided to become a police officer after taking Dixon’s previous community relations class “out of curiosity.” A fan of both The Nation and Mother Jones, he asked Dixon about OPD Officer Robert Roche on his first day of class.

While a member of the OPD’s guns and gangs task force, Roche had shot and killed people of color in three separate instances in the line of duty. Two of the people were teenagers. Roche was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in all three cases, though the city awarded one victim’s family $500,000 in a wrongful death suit. He became famous in 2011 for shooting a teargas canister into a crowd of Occupy protesters. Jordan was the city’s police chief at the time. Roche was put on administrative leave, then fired by Jordan’s successor, current chief Whent, the following August. In 2014, a labor arbitrator ordered the OPD to rehire him with back pay. Elliott wanted to know what Dixon thought.

“And she ultimately said, ‘You know, we have a lot of these officers who come from the Midwest,’” he says. “’They’re often ex-military and they’re really gung ho, and they don’t have the ability to recognize what’s going on here. Until people from here step up and become law enforcement we’ll be stuck with these people who act kind of wild when they come here.’”

And that got him thinking that he could do better. That’s why he’s here on a Wednesday night in a Spanish classroom, learning what it takes to be a police officer and wondering if he might become one.

“It’s so simple,” Elliott says, “but it’s really true what she said.”

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