Obama official: Calif. police department sets good example

The executive director of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing said Oakland policing is one to emulate

By Rachel Swan
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland Police Department is an example of what police agencies across the nation should emulate in the post-Ferguson era, the executive director of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing said Thursday.

Ron Davis, the former East Palo Alto police chief who spent 20 years as an Oakland police officer, told The Chronicle editorial board Thursday that the Oakland Police Department is on the right path to building a stronger relationship with the community, change that was initiated by a court order stemming from the Riders police abuse scandal in 2003.

“I spent 20 years in Oakland; we know the history,” Davis acknowledged. But he pointed out that Oakland has found ways to repair the strained relationship it long had with the community it served, in part by using community leaders to talk with officers about community relations and by changing police tactics to avoid violent, if not fatal, confrontations.

Obama created the task force by executive order in December in the wake of mass demonstrations across the U.S. against police brutality and killings of civilians that were video-recorded by passersby and shared through social media. The task force has since issued a report with recommendations for police departments on building trust and reducing crime.

In July, Davis invited Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Police Chief Sean Whent to participate in a White House forum on policing, and to share some of their strategies with the task force. Oakland was among 30 cities represented at that meeting. The chief and mayor brought along a delegation of clergy and community activists, including members of the Ceasefire Violent Crime Reduction Strategy, which offers services to divert people from crime.

Ceasefire is one in a slew of changes to Oakland’s police culture, and it dovetails with other measures, such as the near-universal use of body cameras, a new foot-chase policy that bans officers from chasing suspects who jump backyard fences, and a “pipeline project” to set aside up to 40 seats in the cadet program for graduates of Oakland public schools, beginning in October.

“It’s a way of sending a very clear message that we want people from this community to be the guardians of this community,” Schaaf said.

Such reforms are essential, Davis said, at a time of heightened scrutiny and national protests over police misconduct.

“When a new police chief comes in, in many cases you’re starting a reconciliation process,” he said. “Part of that process is the acknowledgment in the role that law enforcement has played in Jim Crow, or the disparate arrests of young men of color.”

In the mid-’90s, Oakland police arrested roughly 30,000 people per year, and saw those statistics as a benchmark of success, according to Whent. Now, he said, the department arrests between 11,000 and 12,000 people a year — yet crime has dropped.

“It was a department that at the time did measure success by how many people can we arrest, and how many tickets can we write, whereas now we’re really trying to focus on arresting the right people,” Whent said.

He added that a large part of the reform process in Oakland is to change both the perception of police and the roles that officers are playing.

Schaaf has pledged to boost the department’s staff to about 800 officers by the end of her term in 2018. But Whent wants those officers to meld seamlessly into the community, getting out of their cars to meet people rather than just stopping in to make arrests.

Oakland’s use-of-force complaints were down 40 percent between 2013 and 2014, along with a precipitous decrease in crime. A recent Chronicle analysis showed that homicides declined from 126 in 2012 to 80 in 2014.

Whent expects that the Oakland Police Department will soon be freed from federal oversight, and he’s optimistic the reforms will continue.

Copyright 2015 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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