Chief of Police Anthony Batts promised Wednesday to change Oakland’s poor safety image, which he said was damaging the city’s economy and morale. Batts said, since October 2009 when he was appointed chief, he has had countless complaints from residents who had become victims of crime.

“I don’t want to be tied to a city that makes people shudder when you talk about that’s where you are going to work or live,” Batts told residents in a town hall meeting March 17 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, 4700 Lincoln Ave., in the Oakland hills.

The chief shared an ambitious plan he said would turn Oakland into one of the safest California cities, “both in reality and perception” by the year 2015. He unveiled the plan in February. Wednesday’s meeting was one of a handful the chief planned to talk with community members and get feedback from them.

Batts said, though some expressed doubt he could do it, his tenure in Long Beach proved otherwise.

“Some say, ‘This bald guy is out of his mind,’” Batts said. “Well, there was one
city, Long Beach, that eight years ago was very low in terms of dealing with crime. Today it’s not the safest city in California but it is number four on the list of the safest large cities.”

Batts said Oakland’s reputation was so bad that employees of a San Francisco company threatened to quit when their employer suggested a move to Oakland for cheaper rent.

“That needs to stop,” Batts said. “That’s unacceptable for this community.”

The plan also aims to turn the Oakland Police into a competent department that “provides high quality services in a friendly manner,” and one that is “trusted, respected and valued” by all communities.

Batts said Oakland must first acknowledge there is a problem.

“We want to be the safest big city in California, but in order for us to get to that point, we must understand where we are today,” said Batts.

He showed a PowerPoint presentation of reports that rank Oakland among the least safe large cities in California. The chief said he would transform the department into one that responds rapidly to emergency calls.

“When you pick up the phone and say, ‘I need help,’ we have to do that,” Batts said. “The truth of the matter is that we don’t do that very well.”

Batts said there were times when it had taken Oakland police officers up to 14 hours to respond to burglaries. A 2009 police Communications Division report estimated that it took officers 15 minutes to respond to emergencies. The standard time should be five minutes, according to the report cited by Assistant Chief Howard Jordan.

“We are not doing a good job of being there when you need us,” Jordan said.

Jordan said, however, the department has seen a lot of improvement in the past four months, a result of increased movement of police from headquarters to the field. The department has also acquired state-of-the-art technology to analyze workload to help send officers to calls, he said.

Batts said the success of his plan would depend of police winning the trust of Oakland residents. He added that some neighborhoods would require more work than others.

“There are many people who trust the Police Department, but in the eastern end of our city, the trust level is not as high,” Batts said. “In some parts we don’t do a very good job working with the community. We need to change that.”

Responding to Batts’ plan, residents said they were impressed.

“I think he was dynamic,” said Upper Rockridge resident Trisha Gorman. “It sounds like he is bringing a very different policing strategy.”

Joseph Johnson, a 23-year-old East Oakland resident, said he thought Batts’s plan was impressive because it touched on some major issues like police and community involvement. A greater number of officers need to go to neighborhoods with low levels of trust and develop relationships with residents, said Johnson, who works as a leadership team member at Youth Uprising, an East Oakland-based organization of young adults.

“The answer to improving trust is pretty simple,” said Johnson. “Mistrust comes from not knowing someone. If we had police officers attending community gatherings where we can have food, dancing and laughing, instead of them being in uniform and confrontational, you’ll see the relationship with the community improving.”

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