Why Has Los Angeles Succeeded With Its Consent Judgment While Oakland Hasn’t?

As we discussed in previous posts, here, here and here, Oakland is struggling with its years long efforts to comply with a consent judgment regulating many aspects of its police department, while Los Angeles, with a very similar judgment, has become “the national and international policing standard.”  So what is the difference?

MOBN! has spent a lot of time looking at the experience of both cities.  We weren’t in LA when that city addressed its problems, but we did talk to Todd Foglesong and Christine Cole, who have studied the LA experience, and (along with Christopher Stone), wrote about it in “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree:  The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD.” And while we only see Oakland’s police department from 20,000 feet up, here’s what we see (the observations here are ours except for those we specifically attribute to Foglesong and Cole):

  • The City of Los Angeles made two concurrent commitments.  According to Stone, Foglesong and Cole in their study, “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree:  The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD,”

Some people believe that restraining a police department in its use of force, raising the standards for police stops, and tightening civilian oversight of police management all inevitably permit crime to rise by loosening the state’s grip on criminals.  The Los Angeles story proves such cynicism wrong.  Indeed, the recent history of policing in Los Angeles demonstrates that respecting rights and reducing crime can be achieved together.  Since 2003, as the police use of force declined, so did crime.  As police-community relations improved, even in the poorest neighborhoods, so did public safety.

Furthermore, say Stone et al.,

No responsible official would pursue the reforms required by this kind of consent decree without attending simultaneously to the problem of crime.  The consent decree itself does not discuss the need to reduce crime in Los Angeles, but no chief of police can afford to reform a department in ways that do not attend to crime problems, even while focusing on relations with residents and legal restraint on the use of force.

  • Before Los Angeles agreed to its civil rights consent judgment (which was one of several under which it was operating), it already had an Inspector General – a high-ranking member of the command staff charged with ensuring departmental compliance and audits.  Oakland instituted the same position under the NSA.  But the LAPD Inspector General – and the chief – reported to a civilian police commission.  Oakland’s Inspector General reports to the chief, who reports to the mayor.  Is this chain of command issue important?  It may well be.  But in our discussions with Foglesong and Cole, they cited a more important factor in LA:  the use of the city’s citizen complaint, audit and early warning systems for performance improvement.  In other words, these are not just mechanisms to catch cops who fail to meet department standards; they are tools for improving police officer performance.
  • As mentioned in previous posts, we had been very impressed by the amount of polling data measuring community views about police.  Foglesong and Cole told us that this polling was not conducted by the police department or the city.  Rather, it was undertaken by the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Police Foundation and, finally, by Stone, Foglesong and Cole.  Nonetheless, we believe that cities value what they measure and measure what they value.  If Oakland wants to improve community / police relations, it should start measuring those relations.
  • As we have shown in earlier posts, the OPD is being hit with “mission creep” by the monitor.  While much of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement requires improved record-keeping of officer judgments, the monitor has recently started using the NSA as a reason to evaluate the judgments themselves.  In our conversation, Foglesong and Cole were not aware of instances where the monitor in LA had gone beyond the letter of the Consent Judgment.
  • Los Angeles made a tremendous commitment to the data processing infrastructure necessary to bring modern policing to the department.  In Oakland, on the other hand, OPD continues to have technology failures, the city’s public safety communications systems are still subject to outages, the “IPAS” system – a key element for early warning about officers who need training, counseling, etc. – doesn’t work.  And as of the last monitor’s report, Oakland couldn’t even say how many people the OPD had arrested in the third quarter of 2011.
  • Los Angeles had a long-term political commitment to increase the size of its force, unrelated to the Consent Judgment.  So by 2009, Los Angeles had increased its sworn police force to 2.6 officers per 1000 citizens.  At that time, Oakland’s department was at 1.96 officers per 1000 citizens.  And of course, as a result of continuously cancelled academies and police layoffs, we’re now down to 1.63 officers per 1000, or 65% of the Los Angeles level.  In our conversation, Foglesong did not agree Los Angeles’ staffing increase was particularly relevant to compliance.  But we think it is at least worth looking at the question of whether an adequately staffed department in a tough urban environment has a better chance of compliance than a police department that is being intentionally contracted, as Oakland’s is.
  • Finally, Los Angeles’ success cannot be considered without addressing the issue of leadership.  As Stone, Foglesong and Cole observe:

[Chief Bratton’s] vision, his experience in other departments, and his confidence that the City and Department can meet the requirements of the consent decree are widely reported as factors driving the success of the LAPD. Second, his concern with professionalism, transparency, performance management in policing, and race relations in the United States are at least as important as the requirements of the consent decree in understanding what motivates the LAPD in its senior ranks.

In other words, the consent judgment alone won’t get the job done.  It takes a combination of leadership, a commitment to modern policing, and an equal commitment to crime reduction, not just by the police department but by the city as a whole.

When Oakland – not just the police department, but the City as a whole — achieves this confluence of city leadership and informed, intelligent commitment to modern, effective policing, we will not only get past the NSA and avoid receivership; we will create a safer city.

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Don Link

    This is an intelligent analysis that provides timely, useful food for thought. Thanks.

  2. Iris R Winogrond

    Just what is entailed in “equal commitment to crime reduction…by the city as a whole”? Are Oakland citizens lacking commitment to crime reduction?

    1. St. Peter

      I doubt whether Oakland citizens lack commitment to crime reduction. The lack of commitment is in City Hall. Competent leadership would set goals for, say, reduction of homicides, and then proceed to deal with the problem. We don’t have such leadership. City Hall makes politics out of our crime problems, plays one group (more cops) against another group (more social problems). The real solution lies in using our crime-reduction resources effectively and in coordinated fashion. Which we simply do not do.

  3. Kodi

    These analyses put forth by MOBN! are thoughtful and revealing. It would be useful to have a comparative analysis of the LA “turn-around” from more than one source (Harvard), however. I concur entirely with St. Peter as to why none of this now works in Oakland. Why do the citizens continue to elect outrageously inept leaders? And as long as the OPD Chief reports to the Mayor this hideous crime issue will remain an impenetrable political morass. OPD has been crippled almost beyond repair now with very little ability to restore a semblance of law enforcement at this point. And not to detract from MOBN!’s admirable efforts, but what is the proposed mechanism to put any of these fine ideas into a cohesive plan that can be enacted in Oakland IN SPITE of the inept, corrupt and bumbling politicians? All citizens in this city are suffering on an hourly, daily basis from this scourge.

  4. Allan

    Do we have any data on how much is expended on pokice per citizen in LA and Oakland?

  5. oaktalk

    Allan,MOBN! has undertaken a large number of comparisons between Oakland and other cities on public safety issues, and hopes to be publishing these soon. Our study group was cities with 200,000 to less than a million in population, so we didn’t capture Los Angeles. But in that group of cities, Oakland ranks No. 5 in the nation in police budget per capita.

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