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Rev. Ken Chambers of the West Side Missionary Baptist Church in West Oakland gives his Sunday sermon.

West Oakland residents express little trust in police

on October 16, 2018

As Oakland prepares to choose its next mayor, some residents in West Oakland are focused on the troubled history of the city’s police force.

“I don’t trust any God damn one of them,” said Ron Williams, a construction worker, referring to the Oakland police force.

Such distrust has made Cat Brooks, the founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, an organization that works to eradicate violence caused by police in communities of color, a competitive candidate in the 2018 mayoral race. Brooks’ primary proposal calls for a massive defunding of the police department. The department has increased its budget to $471 million this year, which is 43 percent of the city’s total overall budget. The money the city saves, she says, should instead go into programs like early childhood development and mental health services.

But Charles Stone, an officer for the Oakland Police Department for the last 17 years who is currently serving as the youth outreach program coordinator, said he is disappointed that residents seem unaware of all the positive changes the department has made to improve policing methods and community relationships, such as eliminating random stops. “This isn’t the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s—or 2000s for that matter,” he said. “The department has made a concerted effort to base enforcement on credible information, rather than randomly harassing people on the street.”

He added that the department has completely “revamped” the way officers operate, only allowing police to act on intelligence-based information. “We don’t have an interest in super low-level stuff,” Stone said. “We want to get people who are actually hurting the community.”

Stone is referring to “Operation Ceasefire,” an initiative co-led by the department with community activists, members and social workers, to dramatically reduce arrests for minor offenses, and in return focus policing on violent crimes.

For residents of West Oakland, however, the long history with the police means they see Brooks’s proposal as anything but radical. Distrust of police runs so high that the First Congregational Church of Oakland has called for its community members to stop calling the police all together.

Damian Brown, a transportation worker in West Oakland, agrees that community members should take more responsibility in self-policing, because he feels police officers are simply not doing their jobs. “There are some situations with the police, that they will just sit there and watch you. They’re not even going to get out of their car for their own safety,” he said.

He views the current increase in the department’s budget as having more to do with protecting the city’s businesses and new high-income residents, rather than fixing the department’s unstable history with the city’s minority populations.

The Oakland Police Department came under federal oversight in 2003 as part of a massive settlement in a class-action lawsuit alleging pervasive civil rights abuses after four veteran officers, who notoriously called themselves “The Riders” got caught planting evidence, beating suspects and falsifying reports. The department has continually tried to revamp its image, but a department-wide sex abuse scandal in 2016 further strained community relationships.

Kentrell Killens, a life coach and West Oakland native, says that he doesn’t know many people who’ve had good experiences with the police. “I’m curious to know what they mean when they say ‘protect and serve.’ Like, what does that actually mean?” he asked. “Because it seems like that’s redefined at every juncture of business for them. It’s not just some standard practice.”

Killens, like Brown, thinks there is a clear disconnect between the department and the community. “It seems like it’s a lot of rookie, non-resident officers who are unfamiliar with the culture in Oakland,” Killens added. He believes this causes “violent responses” in tense situations, and more African-Americans and Latinos being “harassed and pulled over.”

In a study published last summer, researchers found that Oakland police officers were significantly less likely to speak respectfully to black motorists than they were to white ones when they pulled them over.

And Killens is correct when he says most Oakland officers are not members of the community. According to a report published earlier this year in the East Bay Express, nine out of 10 officers live outside of Oakland, many in distant suburbs. Forty percent of the force is white.

Killens wants the department to hire more minority officers who are from Oakland. He believes that this, along with increased training on community relations and engagement, will help reform the department.

Stone, who is in charge of the department’s Explorer program, said that he tries to do just that. His recruitment program for Oakland high school students exposes them to real-world law enforcement and the world of policing. According to Stone, there are currently 26 young people in the program, but they have the capacity for 30.

“My sole purpose on a daily basis is to get young people from the community to think about policing as a career,” he said.

“We obviously recognize that we would be better served with more members of the Oakland community on our force, but what people don’t understand is how difficult hiring is,” Stone continued. “It’s a struggle nationwide for law enforcement agencies to find people. For this reason we’re focusing on outreach and letting young people in the community know that this is a viable career.”

Reverend Ken Chambers, the lead pastor at the West Side Missionary Baptist Church in West Oakland, said that his congregation thinks the department should push towards more community policing. “The officers need to get out of their cars and get into the community. Officers need to actually walk in their beat. Drive-bys are not the answer,” Chambers said, referring to officers patrolling communities by car.

Stone agrees with the pastor, but sees it as unrealistic. “At the end of the day, it’s a numbers problem,” Stone said, pointing out that the department has 300 patrol officers to handle more than 3,200 calls a day. “We would like to get out, chat, spend time and engage more with the community, but unfortunately we’re prioritizing 911 calls because responding to those quickly is what matters most,” he said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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