MOBN! Public Safety Update March 25, 2010

by Mike Ferro, MOBN! Public Safety Committee

Concerned MOBN! members and other citizens will have by now attended an Oakland Police Department Strategic Plan Framework meeting or have read reports about these meetings. Although the planned large-scale public meetings all have been completed, Chief Batts continues to talk to smaller community groups on a regular basis. The important things that have become clear in this process are that Batts is well-informed, that he knows what he is doing and that among Oakland public officials, he has all-too-rare leadership qualities.

MOBN! members should be aware that we have another progressive leader in Oakland with regard to our public safety: Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County District Attorney. Like Chief Batts, O’Malley is extremely-well informed, progressive, efficient, knows what she is doing and has strong leadership qualities. Also like Batts, she is articulate and accessible.

O’Malley spoke last night at a meeting of Oakland’s Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee. Members of the Steering Committee, it needs to be said, are ordinary citizens who have had a long-term interest in public safety and community policing in Oakland. Many of them have been working very hard behind the scenes to improve public safety and in my discussions with some of them have helped me understand the challenges that lie ahead regarding public safety.

First, a few things about Nancy O’Malley which need to be more widely known. The lack of useful media in Oakland is the main reason most of us don’t know about her (as well as others’) record of accomplishment and this media void, in my opinion, is a major factor in Oakland’s dysfunction as a community and its ongoing failures of governance.

Nancy O’Malley has been a leader in the D.A.’s office with regard to victims’ rights and anti-violence prosecution. She has been a prime mover in getting the demolition going at Oak Knoll and moving towards redevelopment there. She is focusing on working in cooperation with the Oakland City Attorney in dealing with urban blight problems (like Oak Knoll).

O’Malley describes herself as “statistics driven.” In other words, she wants to have the numbers to prove that the D.A. is effective. Support services through her office were provided to 35,000 crime victims last year, of which 15,000 cases were in Oakland. In 75% of all cases, her office brings charges; the charge rate for felonies is 80%. Of felony charges brought, 85% result in convictions. Most cases which are tried are murder and domestic violence. The conviction rate in most other California cities ranges from 50 to 60%.

In 2005, with a Federal grant, O’Malley founded the Family Justice Center in Oakland which combines in a single office, on 27th between Broadway and Telegraph, all support services for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and elder abuse. Having a single office insures that all victims can get access to the services they deserve and need. Previously these services were dispersed and difficult to access. The D.A’s office has a staff of 34 victims’ advocates. In 2009 more than 3000 victims of crime went to the D.A. for help.

Our victim programs come from State law requiring restitution. Alameda County’s program is a model for the rest of California. Many counties do nothing on restitution. Here, in 2009, $10 million in restitution was sought and was court-ordered. The D.A. succeeds in collecting about 50% of this. The Department of Corrections also collects restitution from prisoners and of the total amount collected by Corrections, Alameda County obtains nearly all of the money available statewide.

In Wednesday’s meeting, O’Malley emphasized that lots of the violent crime in Oakland results from turf battles between drug-dealing gangs. She pointed out the ruthlessness of these criminals. Her office has three prosecutors and three investigators in the gang unit and in 2009 they tried 86 gang members and convicted 75 of them. Gang violence prosecutions are very difficult because often the only witnesses are other gang members. This means that her office must run a large witness protection program. Effective gang prosecutions have an effect on reducing the type of violent acts perpetrated here. Gang members now are likely to shoot to wound rather than to kill in order to minimize their prison sentences.

A upcoming challenge for O’Malley are the early releases of prisoners due to State budget shortfalls. The Department of Corrections provides counties only with lists of prisoners to be released. The D.A. must research and check all backgrounds and then make an assessment regarding the potential for reentry into crime. O’Malley has set up a new department of Community Offender Management in her office to deal with the increase in prisoner releases.

Tuesday evening, the Special Public Safety Committee of the Oakland City Council met to review a recommendation from the Civilianization Working Group. The Working Group said that the City should hire additional workers to handle Oakland Police Department complaints. This could relieve sworn police officers from complaint investigations and put them back to work solving crimes. Civilians are significantly cheaper to hire than sworn police officers. Having civilians to interview citizens with complaints also helps to insure that the citizens are free to say what they need to say without feeling intimidated by a police officer. Having more civilians working every day with sworn police staff helps maintain a healthy community focus and respect in the Police Department.

There has been funding available for several months from a Federal grant for two civilians to do this work. The Mayor’s office has not yet moved forward. Additional funding could be sought by Oakland grant-writers. Council member Reid instructed the Mayor’s representative and the Police Department finance officer to look into obtaining grants for this purpose. Council member Quan instructed the finance officer to look for some spare funds in the OPD budget. Some of the citizens in attendance, who have long been advocating for increased civilianization of the police, were glad to get any positive response from the Council. Whether there will actually be any forward movement on this remains to be seen.

“Questionable” really is the appropriate word at this point to describe the prospects for improved public safety in Oakland. We do have two able leaders. These leaders cannot, however, do their work adequately without sufficient resources. Additional funds from the Oakland budget will not be forthcoming. Chief Batts has been heard to say that he would like to have 75 additional sworn officers. Yet, the word circulating around is that the City Council is considering reducing police staff by 30 to 40 because of Oakland’s sorry financial state.

At the heart of Oakland’s public safety problems, in my view, is our fundamentally dysfunctional governance. We don’t have enough leaders in this City who can clearly define a policy or project, keep it on track by attending to the details and make adjustments along the way to reflect changes in conditions and improvements in understanding.

Oakland’s finance is, as a whole, incomprehensible. What goes on downtown in terms of decisonmaking is also almost completely obscure. We don’t have the competent reporters and effective media we need to keep us informed even in a very basic way.

There is hope. There are many citizens here who do want to improve things and who prefer to act on their hopes and wishes rather than spend their time focused on the wobbly twin pillars of complaining and blaming. D.A. O’Malley and Chief Batts are clearly committed public servants and are here for the long haul. O’Malley (who was appointed to her job after the previous D.A. retired) is devoted to public service and will run unopposed for election to her office. Batts has a work contract so that he can do what he thinks is right without having to worry about being fired at someone’s whim when things get tough.

Last, we have a history of citizen involvement in public safety. Until ten years ago, there were many civilians working as volunteers in the police department. We can do this again and in greater numbers than previously. At present there are 644 Neighborhood Watch all-volunteer groups in Oakland and their numbers are increasing. In coming weeks, the City Council may want to lay off the coordinators for the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils because of Oakland’s financial problems. Volunteers do much of the work of the NCPCs. We can go to the City Council meetings and tell our representatives not to stop these important community policing efforts. The City Council does not appear to understand what community policing is all about; we can make sure that they know that we do understand.