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Oakland youth and community members gathered at East Oakland's Castlemont High School to discuss hopes for the next police chief.

Oakland community discusses what they want in new police chief

on September 7, 2016

Last Thursday, about 20 students and residents gathered at Castlemont High School in East Oakland to discuss what they want from their next police chief. The position has been vacant since June after several officials stepped down in the wake of a police-involved sex scandal.

Mayor Libby Schaaf announced at a press conference last week that the city is launching a nationwide search for a new Oakland Police Department (OPD) chief. This fall, there will be 10 community forums for locals to discuss what issues the next OPD leader should address. Meetings will include two youth community forums, and citywide forums in English, Spanish and Cantonese. Online surveys are available for residents who cannot attend forums. According to the City of Oakland’s website, community input will be considered to select a police chief by the beginning of next year.

Thursday’s youth community forum at Castlemont kicked off the meeting series, asking young Oaklanders about their current relationship with the OPD. A Castlemont student described the relationship as fearful. “Whenever we come into contact with police officers—at least in Deep East [Oakland]–it’s scary,” said Ty’Jeare Hunter, 16, the school’s student government president.

“Once I turned 10 years old, I stopped liking cops. I hated them,” said Fransua Senegal, now 30, a violence prevention educator with Youth ALIVE!, an Oakland-based group that supports young victims of violence through mentorship and conflict mediation. He said he grew up in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood watching police officers arrest many of his relatives.

Many residents, like Senegal, said an approachable chief could resolve these issues. “I should be able to talk to the chief and he should be willing to come to the community, so we feel safe and understood,” Senegal said.

Oakland has had three police chiefs this year, after an investigation revealed that several OPD officers had sex with an underage sex worker. The young woman admitted to having sex with dozens of Bay Area officers—at least 14 from Oakland, according to the East Bay Express. After allegations that OPD supervisors had knowledge of this activity–yet failed to take appropriate action–former Police Chief Sean Whent resigned June 10. Whent’s successor Ben Fairow left the position days later. Fairow’s replacement Paul Figueroa stepped down shortly after.

The mayor’s communications director, Erica Terry Derryck, said the mayor is looking for a chief who is a “reform-minded leader” and “who the people want.”

Derryck said Schaaf values youth input in finding a police chief, which is why she chose Castlemont for the first community forum location. “She recognizes that our young people really are the future of this city and that it’s important that their voices be a part of this conversation,” she said.

The youth community forum’s attendees included Castlemont students, teachers, counselors and local residents. Schaff’s chief of staff, Tomiquia Moss, and Urban Peace Movement (UPM) leader Kamani Holmes, 22, moderated the discussion. UPM is an organization that works to reduce urban violence and incarcerations, and connect similar organizations that serve Oakland youth. The moderators asked questions, and noted participant responses on poster-size papers and video that Moss said will be used during the recruitment process. Individuals stepped to the microphone or chimed in from their seats to voice their opinions.

Increased media coverage of police brutality throughout the nation, specifically cases that have resulted in few to no consequences for officers, led participants to a discussion of accountability when officers commit a crime. They said the next police chief should hold the OPD to a higher standard for police-involved shootings.

Hunter said officers should receive higher punishments than civilians when involved in a shooting. “You’re trained how to handle these situations, and we as citizens are not trained how to handle these situations,” Hunter said. “If you’re going to do the crime, knowing that you’re trained not to, then I feel like your punishment should be higher.”

Ja’lenn Polar, 21, said he also wants better police interaction. He said more frequent communication between officers and residents could help. “Every now and then a few officers should meet with the community and discuss what’s happening and how it could get better. We need police in our community,” he said. Polar grew up in the San Antonio neighborhood in East Oakland, sometimes known as the “Murder Dubs.”

Regarding the sex scandal, Senegal said he wants to see more accountability from members of the OPD.  “If I’m the police chief and my officers are sleeping with underage prostitutes, they’re automatically being fired,” he said. Senegal said he’d say to such officers: “We’re not [adding to] your pension. No, you lost that right when you decided to break the law.”

Participants agreed that they want their next chief to be accountable, trustworthy and someone who lives in Oakland. They also used words like, “awful,” “broken,” “tense,” and “distrust” to describe the current relationship between OPD and their community.

But forum participant Liam Kelly described the relationship between neighbors and the police as “good, but quiet.” Kelly, from the Maxwell Park neighborhood, studies criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and wants to become a police officer. Kelly said the next chief should give residents more access to officers assigned specifically to their neighborhoods. He said relations could improve if “people in the community can reach out to them 24-7 if they have an issue. That’s what a community feels like.”

After the event, Senegal said he grew up not trusting the police.  “I’ve seen the police arrest family members, seen family members go to prison. Naturally, I grew up not liking [police],” he said. But one police officer changed Senegal’s mind, he said. “He showed me that when he takes that badge off, he’s still a human,” said Senegal.

When he was 11 years old, the Oakland Police Activity League (PAL) paired Senegal with a long-term mentor, Lieutenant James Meeks. PAL is an organization formed by the Oakland Police Officers Association, OPD and community leaders to host activities and mentorships that connect police officers with youth. Senegal said, for Meeks, the mentorship wasn’t a job. “He’s not just dealing with me because he’s getting paid,” he said. “When he wasn’t working, he would invite me to his family events. He bought me my first suit.”

The next forum, will be held during the Community Policing Advisory Board meeting, is scheduled for Wednesday, September 7, at 6:00 pm at the Eastmont Police Station.


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