Cops and community search for trust in Oakland’s most violent neighborhoods
on October 19, 2015
It was noon, and she had just stepped out of the shower. Jasmine Barnett, age 25, was drying her curls when she heard muffled voices arguing outside of her bathroom window. Like any curious neighbor, she inconspicuously glanced through her blinds using the windowsill as a safeguard. Barnett watched two young men with guns chase another man down the street. She couldn’t keep her eyes off of the large weapons in the hands of such young people. It was a day of firsts for Barnett: the first time she’d seen a dangerous weapon in such close proximity, and the first time she’d witness a person get shot in the head.
“Everybody’s outside wondering what happened, and I’m freaking out,” Barnett recalled. She knew she couldn’t leave the house at 10:30 pm—but she’d never suspected that it would be dangerous to venture out during daylight.
Barnett said the police took awhile to arrive, and when they finally showed up, “witnesses” dispersed back into their homes. “No one had anything to say to those cops. I mean I don’t blame them, because you are pretty much a target if you’re seen talking to the cops,” said Barnett.
Oakland isn’t the only place where law enforcement and certain segments of the community are alienated from one another. The divide between both parties has become more prominent around the nation as videos showing police officers shooting and violently arresting minorities continue to flood social media timelines and evening news segments. In May, President Barack Obama and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) released the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report, which provides 59 recommendations and solutions to help American law enforcement agencies strengthen trust and collaboration with their communities.
According to task force co-chair Laurie Robinson, the report was initiated last November after a grand jury did not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “The Ferguson grand jury came down just about 10 days before this task force was created,” said Robinson. “With the demonstrations and the unhappiness following that, the president felt that it was really important to try to identify what were good practices about how to build bridges between law enforcement and communities; that was the charge he gave us.”
The president gave the staff—which included Robinson’s fellow co-chair Charles Ramsey, who is the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, and nine other appointed members—two months to organize hearings around the report’s six pillars: Building trust; technology and social media; training and education; policy and oversight; community policing and crime reduction; officer wellness and safety. “Police chiefs around the nation are reviewing these recommendations and talking about what steps they’re taking to change training and move ahead on adoption,” said Robinson.
Meanwhile, last month, US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced that 200 law enforcement agencies across the nation would be awarded $107 million through the COPS Office hiring program, creating approximately 866 community law enforcement positions. The grants are connected to the President’s Task Force initiative to improve the nation’s policing efforts. According to a recent COPS press release, all law enforcement agencies that applied for the grants “were asked to identify a specific crime and disorder problem area and how funding would be used to initiate or enhance their capacity to implement community policing approaches to that problem area.” Additional consideration was given to the 76 agencies that selected the category “Building Trust,” including the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, as well as Alameda County.
The task force’s “Building Trust and Legitimacy” pillar holds that law enforcement officials should embrace a “guardian mindset,” which means that officers should be respectful and guard the city, rather than acting as “occupiers of the community,” said Robinson. The report states: “Building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide is the foundational principle underlying the nature of relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.” The report’s authors conclude that people are more likely to obey the law when those enforcing it are perceived as acting in legitimate, “procedurally just ways.” In other words, citizens will only respect police if the respect is reciprocated.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) has been working with the COPS Office to obtain grants for community-oriented policing in the Bay Area for the past several years. In late September, Lee announced that $1.875 million would be granted to the Oakland Police Department (OPD), creating and preserving 15 community-policing law enforcement jobs. Lee hopes to create more opportunities for hiring Oakland natives as police officers, and to enhance community policing.
“As we work to build greater trust between law enforcement and the community, especially communities of color, community-oriented policing strategies have a proven track record,” Lee wrote in an email to Oakland North.. The grant “will provide greater connections between law enforcement and the community and help re-focus law enforcement efforts on the needs of the community.”
Margaret Dixon, a retired 25-year OPD veteran, believes that Oakland residents and the police will need to develop a deeper understanding of each other before they can build a solid relationship. She was born and raised in Oakland, and has spent most of her adult life constructing academic programs for the city’s youth. Dixon recently established the Merritt Community College law enforcement pre-academy, which is a 13-week program that prepares students for rigorous police academies. Like Lee, she wants to create a diverse and effective police force with officers from Oakland that understand the people in the community. According to Dixon, only 7 percent of Oakland’s law enforcement lives in Oakland, which has created a divide between both groups.
“My friends and family still live in Oakland. I have many conversations regarding their relationships with the police. A lot of feedback is negative and a lot of is positive,” said Dixon. “Many are rallying for it to get better. They want to see the community and the police work together. It’s a lot of bad history and a lot of bad blood.”
According to Dixon, there is a long history of aggressive policing in numerous Oakland minority communities. She believes it stems from officers who come from different agencies and cities, who bring their own biases and have little experience operating in racially-diverse districts. “Officers who didn’t grow up in the area, who bring their own taste to policing, and do not understand some of the needs of the community, may have contributed to some of the strange relationships that have developed between the police and Oakland,” said Dixon.
But, she added, negative perceptions of the police apply to all officers, no matter their ethnicity. Dixon says she’s seen officers of all races abuse their badge. “I’ve seen black cops take it too far. I’ve seen white cops take it too far, and I’ve seen Latino cops take it too far,” she said. Nonetheless, she’s encountered African American families who prefer to see an African American officer at their door, because there’s a rooted understanding and connection between them. “Folks like to see folks that look like them,” she said. “If you’re talking about a situation and it’s culturally involved, that particular officer is going to have that dial in and that understanding.”
Cultural differences aren’t the only issue the OPD must overcome. Residents who live in low-income Oakland neighborhoods, like Hayro Estrada, are also concerned about police responsiveness. “Police don’t arrive for 40 minutes to an hour. When they do come, they shrug you off as if they’re too busy to deal with your problem,” said Estrada.
According to Estrada, his neighborhood is overrun with prostitution, drug abuse, and violent crimes. “East Oakland is full of guns. You hear tons of gunshots during the month, from automatics to single shots,” said Estrada. And in Barnett’s West Oakland neighborhood, she says, “shootings happen around here between 6 p.m. until 2 in the morning,” three to five times a month.
But according to OPD District 3 officer Lt. Henderson Jordan, who regularly works in West Oakland, community members do not understand that there are only 24 officers working from 6 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, and if there is a serious incident, resources are drained quickly. “On a typical homicide scene, if you have multiple witnesses, you may utilize anywhere from eight to ten officers, minimally,” said Jordan. “If it’s a large scene with multiple witnesses, you can use anywhere from ten to 16 officers.”
The OPD is currently understaffed. According to a recent report published by the City and County of San Francisco, Oakland holds a ratio of 176 officers to every 100,000 people. Though the FBI has advised Oakland to increase the city’s total number of officers from 836 to 1,100, the city has had trouble retaining officers.
According to Lee, the new community policing positions will help to solve these problems. Community-oriented policing aims to embed cops throughout the community to combat crime. But Oakland’s housing crunch has forced officers like Jordan to live in surrounding cities. “I lived in Oakland when I first joined the police department. I was here the first six years of my career,” said Jordan. “I moved out because my salary wouldn’t allow me to afford a house here, so I moved away so I could buy my own home.”
Though Jordan doesn’t live in Oakland, he says that he spends most of his time in the city working 12 to 14 hour shifts, four days a week. He feels that he and the OPD have a great relationship with the community, even though most of the department lives elsewhere. “The chief talked to us about transparency and the ability for community members to reach out to the police department by phone or email, no matter what the problem is,” said Jordan. “One positive thing we’re doing is a citizens’ police academy, where we have members of the community come and get training on case law and policy procedures from the police department.” The residents who attend the academy are urged to go back into their neighborhoods to fill the gaps between the community and the police department.
But Dixon says that the OPD isn’t doing enough to effectively educate the public. “There is a lack of knowledge about how police officers should do their work,” said Dixon. “I personally think that the police should be framing things for the community; using the Internet, classes, etc. The OPD only has one citizen academy a year. We should be having multiple citizen academies. It doesn’t make sense that there is only one per year.”
Yet she thinks community policing has value, and hopes that the new hires will develop long-term partnerships with residents, even if they didn’t grow up in the neighborhoods they’re policing. She’d like to see the day when police officers are getting out of their cars to play with children, having friendly conversations with residents, and visiting schools to engage with adolescents. “Police have to serve it to the community a different way,” she said. “It’s been the same old way. We have to change things up because we are losing the battle here.”
Robinson believes it’s about changing the culture of policing. She thinks that for too long, there have been day-to-day incidents in which police officers abused their power to mistreat people of color and those from low-income backgrounds. “Accessibility to cameras and cellphones has shed enormous light on these incidents and have opened the eyes of so many people,” she said.
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