Is Chief Bratton The Answer For Oakland?

Oakland is bringing in William Bratton as a public safety consultant.  Bratton made his name nationally as New York City police commissioner. During and after his tenure, New York significantly increased police staffing and experienced an unprecedented—and continuing—reduction in violent crime. After New York, Bratton came to Los Angeles, first as part of the federal monitoring team for its consent judgment (similar to Oakland’s NSA), and then as chief. In his 8 ½ years with LAPD, Los Angeles reduced homicides 41%, reduced violent crime 45,% and came out from under Federal Court supervision.

MOBN! representatives recently joined community leaders in a meeting with Oakland’s policing consultant Robert Wasserman, during which he announced the plan for Bratton’s involvement, described Oakland’s public safety situation as “the most difficult and complex policing challenge in the United States” and discussed long and short term strategies. Here’s MOBN!’s take:

Oakland’s violent crime rate has now gone beyond crisis and reached emergency levels. Oaklanders cannot expect that any one individual or quick solution is going to turn things around.

Wasserman’s and Bratton’s track records as leaders give us some reason for hope. But Oakland will only turn this around if Wasserman and Bratton speak this truth: reducing violence in Oakland with 600 officers or anything close to that number is impossible and unrealistic.  Also, they must dig deeply into the complex politics that have landed us in the current mess.

At the recent meeting, Wasserman was asked about the question of sworn staffing levels. He first responded that the matter was under review. He then stated that, while there are cities with a population of 400,000 that can keep their residents safe with 600 police officers, Oakland isn’t one of them.

In addition to bringing on Bratton, here is some of what Wasserman has in mind for Oakland:

Quick Wins:  Wasserman believes that he, Bratton and the OPD must start with some short-term actions to rapidly bring down crime. Operation Cease Fire is a critical part of this plan. He believes making Cease Fire successful requires the involvement of every City agency at the highest level—and the moral voice of the community must rise up against violence.

MOBN!’s comment: As long-time supporters of Cease Fire, we certainly agree it is important. But the start-up pace of Cease Fire in Oakland has been agonizingly slow, with one call-in this fiscal year. City Council only approved hiring a project manager last month. We have no idea when that position will be filled. The current Cease Fire consultants have estimated it will take a year before we know to what extent the operation is working.  This will not be a quick win.

More focused responses to 911 calls:  Wasserman proposes that OPD limit its immediate call responses to crimes in progress, so that officers decrease their response time to critical calls and have more time to police their assigned beats. He believes keeping officers in their beats will result in more proactive policing, which in turn will lead to crime reduction.

MOBN!’s comment:  Plenty of data supports the view that beat policing and proactive policing reduce crime and build relations between the community and officers. But Oakland only has about 260 total officers available for patrol. Only a fraction of them are patrolling at any given time.  We question whether there is even sufficient staffing to respond to crimes in progress.  And with such a small number of officers, we question whether there is an opportunity for community relationship-building, even if calls are reduced.

Change from Two Policing Zones to Five: Wasserman recommends Oakland change the structure of the department back to one of strong, geographic assignments.  In each of five zones, a captain will control all resources and be accountable for community relations.  Each area will have two lieutenants with similar accountability.  Implementation will start in two zones in February, followed by replication in the other three.

MOBN!’s comment:   We agree that geographic assignments and accountability need to be restored. But the question again comes down to staffing.  Five zones patrolled by 260 officers means an average of 52 patrol officers per zone.  Assuming 1/5 to 1/3 of active patrol officers are on patrol at any given time, this means an average of 10 to 17 officers per zone.

Community Involvement:  Wasserman expresses a need to involve every aspect of the community in policing issues.  This is more than just public relations—every part of the community has to be involved in, and responsible for, making the City safe.

MOBN!’s comment:  We agree that community commitment is going to be essential to bringing public safety to Oakland.  As we stated above, our city is in a public safety emergency.  We had 131 murders in 2012. Over the long-term, we need to bring the OPD and the community together.   But we have to stop the gun violence now.  Getting community consensus in a polarized community like Oakland may be possible, but it won’t be easy and it won’t happen quickly.  And we can’t wait for it to happen before we stop the horrible level of violence in our streets.

Wasserman told us he is inventorying governmental and non-governmental programs aimed at crime reduction.  Hopefully, he should learn about both the programs and the effect of the “voice of the community” in Oakland.  He should learn that Oakland has spent about $40 million in eight years on Measure Y “violence prevention programs,” supported by some of the most vocal and politically active elements of the community.  He should also learn that the average murder and average violent crime numbers during those years are both about 36% higher than the same numbers in 2004, the year Measure Y was passed .

There is plenty of data to show that more police officers means less violent crime. We’ll be posting more about this data soon.  There is no data to show that a city with inadequate police resources can reduce its crime rate with programmatic solutions.  Chief Bratton recognized this in a telephone interview with NBC Bay Area:

The biggest challenge is the number of officers,” Bratton said. “When you add them and use them appropriately, you get results.

Of course, Chief Batts told Oakland the same thing, and City Hall ignored him. So while we support the Wasserman initiatives, and look forward to Chief Bratton’s arrival, we hope they will focus not only on structural changes and community consensus, but on this core public safety fact:  we cannot make Oakland safe without an adequately staffed police force.  And the Mayor’s office and City Council have to make staffing their number one priority.

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 14 Comments

  1. Allan Feinstein

    Of course we would like to have 1000 officers, but we have to deal with reality. Rather than focus on an ideal number, we need a strategy that will get us the most security with what we have, and restore citizens confidence in government and the police department. Then citizens will vote for a larger department. Remember last time we voted extra taxes for a larger number of sworn officers, officers were used to replace civilians as a way to get the numbers up. Of course this was a very inefficient use of our resources.

  2. Fairchild Glister

    Will Bratton be good for Oakland? Sure, if the Mayor and City Councilpeople have the wit to follow his advice.

  3. Don Link

    This is a fair and accurate summary of that meeting and what Wasserman said. I attended that meeting and have a few additional points to add.

    First, CompStat will be at the center of the new geographical accountability, driving OPD’s focus on crime trends in the 5 areas of the city. Each of the 5 areas will have 2 sub areas with a Lieutenant responsible and accountable for it 24/7. Bratton uses CompStat to hold command staff accountable for crime and response to it in their assigned areas. This will be at the center of the new geographical focus. It will be very interesting to see how the geographical lines will be drawn. Traditionally, there have been 6 police Districts (PSAs) in Oakland. How the new areas are configured will say a lot about the new crime abatement strategy.

    Wasserman also pointed out that too many calls for service are repeat calls for the same problem and perpetrator. He proposes charging Problem Solving Officers with the task of solving these repeating problems in their beats. I agree that this is a sensible use of PSOs, particularly in this time of crime and staffing crisis. Also, as long as they are working on problems in their assigned beat, it is a legal and appropriate use of their time under Measure Y.

    Second, a central theme in Wasserman’s proposal is police treatment of Oakland citizens. He repeatedly said that the police have to be perceived by citizens as being “fair, just, and treating citizens with respect,” because the critical element in reducing crime in Oakland will be community support for and assistance to the police. That cannot be achieved without broad community trust of the police. Community involvement must be forged neighborhood by neighborhood and be robust.
    It is interesting that this piece dovetails nicely with the goals of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, although it is not specifically designed for that function. It is simply good, professional policing that does not alienate the public it serves. Berkeley PD is an excellent example of this and exemplifies its effectiveness.

    Third, Wasserman argued strongly that in this staff-short situation, OPD should be sending officers to respond only to those calls where their presence will make a difference. He stated that police dispatchers at the call center should be honest with callers whose problems are not a priority and will either not be responded to at all, or hours or days later. By reducing officer response to calls for service where they will not be effective, he feels it will have the effect of reducing calls for service by 40%, resulting in two important gains: first, it will keep patrol officers in their assigned beats more of their shift instead of racing around the city to respond to standing calls, and second, it will provide them more time for proactive policing, which is at the heart of CompStat’s success at reducing crime.

    For the Wasserman/Bratton reforms to succeed, Oakland’s citizens must step up and do their part. First, they must accept the reality of OPD’s need to respond to only those things where they can make a difference. To an extent, this is already the case with burglaries reported after the fact, and other non-violent crimes that are “cold.” Second, and even more important, citizens in the city will have to play a more active role in crime prevention and crime solution. It is not and cannot be only the police department’s job in its severely staff-short situation. As Wasserman emphasized again and again, every city department, every city employee, and every Oakland citizen needs to be focused on preventing and solving crime for the effort to be successful. The faith community, neighborhoods, NCPCs, Neighborhood Watches and unaffiliated citizens will need to engage.

    For me, Wasserman’s diagnosis and prescriptions rang true. Also true is the fact that there are probably not two more qualified people on the planet to work on Oakland’s unique and complicated situation than Wasserman and Bratton. I am optimistic that they will make a real difference.

  4. Bill

    Oakland should just legalize drug sales unless the federal government wishes to do something about the gangs obtaining guns from Nevada and other areas. Drug trafficking is what drives crime. Stop the war on drugs to stop the war in the streets. Oh sorry, sounds too simple…..but it did work on the Wire…

  5. livegreen

    The consultants have only been named, and even MOBN is already giving its list of “but”s and other priorities. Since this is from a pro-public safety group, imagine what the politics r going to b like when everbody else jumps in the ring.

    Rather than politicking from the get-go, I would restate the “but”s as either “and” (incorporated into the policy recommendations) or as a list of questions to the consultants about how they would address these problems. Or if they’re already inferred as a subcategory of their recommendations.

    2ndly, recommendations need to be both prioritized and followed through on. I mean all the way.

    There are numerous instants in which the politicians have voted to support policy recommendations from OPD or previous consultants only to go back on their own votes (for a variety of reasons, from later reprioritizing the city budget or just plain politics). Examples of this also apply specifically to police staffing, and include:

    –The original attempts at Ceasefire;
    –Chief Batts detailed Strategic Plan;
    –The Harnett Report.

    All of these efforts & recommendations were supported by the City Council but then later either deprioritized or defunded.

    This INCLUDES the specific mentioning in both of the latter that OPD is understaffed.

    The City Council and Mayor CANNOT be permitted to say one thing (vote to support these efforts) and then act to undercut what they voted for without being called to task.

    Public safety is too important. Lives are at stake!

    Remember this when City contracts are up for renegotiation and the Council has a choice to fund services or fund salaries & benefits.

    PS. Allan is right. City Govt needs to restore services from the General Fund and prove they can spend money wisely & sustainably before they bait & switch taxpayers again.

  6. hedera

    Oakland hired Tony Batts, and ignored him. Batts is/was William Bratton’s protege. Why should I assume that Mr. Bratton will do any better, since he’ll say the same things?

    Oakland’s two major problems will prevent any solution unless they are addressed:

    – A large community, mainly but not only people of color, simply don’t trust the police and won’t deal with them
    – A large community, mainly but not only well-to-do hills residents, don’t trust the city council and city government.

    I don’t think I need to explain either of these to the readers of this blog.

    Our new council members have a heavy load to pick up.

  7. Frank Castro

    What concerns me is the Bratton was the Police Commissioner in New York City and he was the Chief of Police in Los Angeles. His departments in those cities were required to follow his edicts. The problem here is that he is only a consultant. He can say way he wants but the OPD is not required to follow his recommendations. Likewise, the Mayor and City Council are not required to follow his recommendations. It would be a completely different matter if he were the Chief of the OPD

  8. livegreen

    To add to my prior comments:
    –Compstat was originally recommended to Oakland in the Harnett report. It took years after its approval for it’s funding & implementation. Just another example of our politicians ignoring the recommendations of successful law enforcement.

    –I agree with the MOBN statement above “There is plenty of data to show that more police officers means less violent crime. We’ll be posting more about this data soon.  There is no data to show that a city with inadequate police resources can reduce its crime rate with programmatic solutions. “

  9. Charles

    The focus is obviously on reducing homicides. There is little correlation between the homicide rate in its dozens and the rate of robberies and burglaries in their thousands per year. If the homicide count subsides, City Hall will pat itself on the back – but most Oakland residents will see little reason to give Mayor Fantasy more tax money. The approaching 2014 vote on whether to continue the Measure y (now BB) taxes is probably the reason for all the dust in the air.

  10. Mike

    There are many very thoughtful comments here!

    1. MOBN: “the most difficult and complex policing challenge in the United States.”
    This may well be, but the the even larger challenge in Oakland is the political one. I discussed this with David Kennedy during his visit here a year or so ago. He was well-aware of it. Kennedy’s often-stated point is that the whole community, and all relevant departments of government, must be committed to change. We are a very very long way from that. The Mayor and the Council are essentially mute. There is no leadership or accountability. There are no goals or efforts at transparency. As recently as last September a couple of Council members and the Mayor made public commitments to a resolution proposed by SAVE to specific goals for violence reduction. This commitment has taken the usual glide down the drain.

    2. MOBN: “Oakland’s violent crime rate has now gone beyond crisis and reached emergency levels. Oaklanders cannot expect that any one individual or quick solution is going to turn things around.

    I disagree strongly. It is the awareness among some people of the depth of the problems that has changed. The problem has been a crisis in minority neighborhoods for a generation. Homicide in Oakland has, for 40 years, been at a running average of 105 per year. Take the average of any five year period since about 1970 and the average will be over 100 homicides. As David Kennedy likes to point out, the homicide rate per 100K population in Oakland’s violent neighborhoods is a multiple of the citywide rate. There are very few African-Americans in Oakland’s most violent areas who haven’t been directly affected by a shooting. The hills are just beginning to hear the gun shots.

    3. MOBN: “Also, they must dig deeply into the complex politics that have landed us in the current mess.”

    I don’t think this is Bratton’s role. This is the role of local community organizations and leaders and whatever little local media we have, which should have local knowledge about Oakland’s failed political culture. These organizations, like MOBN, should work on developing some ideas about how to change the politics rather than finding ways to accommodate the status quo. It won’t be easy.

    4. MOBN: “Wasserman believes that he, Bratton and the OPD must start with some short-term actions to rapidly bring down crime. Operation Cease Fire is a critical part of this plan.”

    What Wasserman is talking about is the political situation. Taking a year to get Ceasefire started is very unlikely to work politically. Oakland’s government needs to be able to demonstrate some real success in violence reduction. This success must be credible to all Oakland’s diverse communities. Without significant improvements in credibility, Ceasefire efforts will be ignored by the perpetrators and the violence-dominated communities in which they work. Future funding demands, as for the renewal of something to replace Measure Y, are not likely to succeed in the electorate as a whole unless government starts being accountable and transparent.

    5. MOBN completely ignores the role of the compliance director, which I cannot understand. Don Link’s comment addresses it very well.

  11. Jonathan C. Breault

    Call me a cynic but I doubt that the decision to engage the services of William Bratton has much to do with a sincere change of heart on the part of Mayor Jean Quan. This is more window dressing designed to give the public the impression that Quan is committed to real reform. In typical fashion this is a hire long on public relations value and short on specific, long term strategy which will be required to actually implement whatever recommendations Bratton delivers. As a citizen who absolutely rejects the entrenched orthodoxy of Oakland municipal government I am very dubious that this big time consultant will be given the tools necessary to implement whatever strategies he suggests. Why do we have highly paid Chief of Police when we then hire what is in essence a duplicate chief for huge dollars? This is just more pie-in-the-sky nonsense designed to ingratiate Quan with the electorate with an eye on re-election and the renewal of the fraud commonly known as Measure Y. There are plenty of intelligent, prudent recommendations about how to stem the flow of thugs and pimps and assorted swine who have the freedom to operate with impunity in Oakland that ought to be implemented but until we stop squandering resources on half measures, boondoggles and poorly vetted programs we will not ever do the ONE thing that is certain to stem the tide and that is hire a sufficient number of Police Officers to do the job.

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