If the Oakland Police Department was a baseball team, the 2014 season was a banner year.

But the sobering reality of the work to further lower crime, rebuild police morale and address lingering community distrust explains why government leaders like Police Chief Sean Whent and Mayor Libby Schaaf aren’t popping celebratory champagne.

“We made some progress,” Whent said. “It’s a continuation of what we saw the year before.”

The force hit above its average by a wide margin in most meaningful statistical measures of crime: murders down 11 percent, shootings down 13 percent, and robberies and burglaries down nearly 30 percent combined. Further, there wasn’t a single officer-involved shooting in 2014.

But progress has been overshadowed by weeks of public protests about police violence, which peaked at a Black Lives Matter symposium on Jan. 24 hosted by Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney and attended by both Whent and Schaaf.

“I think it’s critical that no matter how many improvements we’ve made recently, we have to acknowledge the harm that has been committed in the past and recognize that the community is not going to get over that immediately,” Schaaf said. “We have to continue along these paths of reform and we have to demonstrate that these reforms are permanent.”

Oakland Police durring riots. Creative Commons phone by Thomas Hawk.

Oakland Police during riots. Creative Commons photo by Thomas Hawk.

Continuing the effort is far more important than touting success anyway, Whent said. “We have way more street crime than we want to have.”

Whent credits Ceasefire for much of the reduction in crime and hopes it will continue to show noticable improvements. Ceasefire is a collaborative effort between the community, human services and law enforcement to reduce violence.

“You have to have all three,” Whent said of the collaboration. “And it’s the relationship between the three of them that counts.”

Twice before, dating back more than a decade, the city tried unsuccessfully to implement it.

“Ceasefire is something that you have to remain dedicated to,” he said. “Cities that have remained committed have seen the reductions. We think if we remain dedicated, it will continue to be impactful.”

Initiatives include night walks organized by Oakland Community Organizations, police training to reduce the use of lethal force and positive opportunities for those leaving gang life.

Whent and Schaaf agree the city’s implementation of body-worn cameras by every uniformed officer has already begun to pay dividends, precisely at a time when the national movement of protests is calling for such things.

Schaaf says the benefits go beyond just monitoring police.

“I don’t know of any other city that has as widespread use of body cameras as OPD,” Schaaf says.  “Not only are we ensuring that our officers use those cameras, but we’re using the data from those cameras for things like training and feedback. We’ve used it in implementing new policies. And that is good for everyone.”

Officer enrollment numbers also improved in 2014, which — albeit briefly — met the stated goal of 700 officers. The force topped out at 717 in October and now sits at 695. Recruitment remains an ongoing concern as many near retirement and the demands of working in Oakland take continued toll.

“We’re competing against other agencies where the work load isn’t as demanding,” he said.

Despite the successful year for OPD, the tumult of determined protests damped morale within the force.

“It was definitely a real challenge through the last month and a half of the year,” Whent said. “Very, very difficult. Thankfully in January it’s slowed down somewhat.”

Whent admitted the police were stretched very thin through the holidays and that rank-and-file officers feel disproportionately blamed for systemic problems within the community. Events like the Black Lives Matter symposium help him get out this forward-looking message.

“People have noticed the change in Oakland,” he says. “A lot of their complaints are from a long time ago or things that have happened in other places in the country. There is a realization that the issues extend beyond just the police department.”

OPD on patrol. Creative Commons photo by Brian Imagawa.

OPD on patrol. Creative Commons photo by Brian Imagawa.

The success of 2014 mostly serves as momentum for meaningful reform to continue, Schaaf says, which is a big part of why the first thing she did on her first day as mayor was visit the police department. She tried to send a signal that past distrust between the police and city officials is over and a new spirit of cooperation has begun.

“That day was to honor the work they are doing and listen to their pain point,” Schaaf says. “That’s what any good manager does — understand the organization in order to reform it. You have to earn buy-in and I think we will.”

A. Scot Bolsinger won more than two dozen press awards during his journalism career. He is a freelance writer, author and operates www.criminalu.co, which is focused on prison reform. Follow him @CriminalUniv.

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