Oakland city leaders are working with a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, Strategic Policy Partnership, to come up with a plan to reduce crime. But not everyone can decide what that plan should be. City leaders want better data; residents would like more community policing; homicide investigators say the community needs to come forward with information more often.
Last year, violent crimes were up 23 percent in Oakland compared to the previous year. Burglaries were up more than 40 percent. On top of that, the Oakland police force has suffered years of cutbacks, and now has 25 percent fewer officers compared to five years ago.
At the same time, a federal judge is about to name a "compliance director” who will oversee the department as it struggles to meet decade-old court-ordered reforms.
Host Stephanie Martin talks over the issues with Robert Wasserman, head of Strategic Policy Partnership.
MARTIN: Mr. Wasserman, thanks for joining us.
WASSERMAN: Pretty happy to be here.
MARTIN: What steps can the department be taking right now to improve in the short term?
WASSERMAN: Well, I think that’s one of the major questions that we have to address in the next month or two. We’re going to be assisted by Bill Bratton and some others from his team who are going to look at the things the department can do internally that will really maximize the impact on reducing, particularly violent crime, and in some areas the burglary problem and robbery problem, which is quite severe.
We have laid out a number of things that need to be improved, in the work we’ve been doing, and Bratton and his group will be working with the department to see that those efforts are implemented over the coming months. All of this gets built upon the Ceasefire initiative which is now in place in Oakland and is beginning to show extremely positive results.
But if the ceasefire’s to work, the police department must be able to respond rapidly when these violent crimes occur, so that those who engage in them know that if they get involved in these crimes, the reaction will be very strong. And bad things will happen to them and all of the members of their group.
MARTIN: And remind us again the basics of how Ceasefire works.
WASSERMAN: Well Ceasefire is an initiative that’s built on the work of David Kennedy from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and it has been implemented in a fairly substantial number of cities across the country with quite stellar results. Ceasefire, one of the things we know, which Ceasefire has been able to document, is that those who engage in violent crime represent a very small portion of the population in a city – usually far less than one percent, and you can identify who all those people are.
And so what Ceasefire does is, it maps that out, and then you call in the leadership of those groups, or gangs, and advise them that the next member of their group who is involved in a violent crime will see the whole group come under incredible scrutiny from federal and local partners about all sorts of things. So you make it very costly to them if they continue to be involved in violent crime.
There are offshoots of this because Ceasefire has a very strong community component. It is able to create a moral voice throughout the community, especially starting from pastors and the religious community that gets people out on the streets saying, “We’re not going to tolerate these activities anymore,” which has quite an impact on changing the environment that exists. It’s a whole series of things like that that come into play.
MARTIN: Tracking crime was one of the arguments for bringing in Bill Bratton as a consultant. As a New York City police commissioner, he introduced the CompStat crime tracking system, and that system has been credited with decreasing crime and improving the quality of life in that city. Now Oakland has CompStat, but the problems still persist. How could it be used more effectively?
WASSERMAN: CompStat is not really a crime tracking system. I mean it is; it does stand for computerized statistics, which comes together as the term CompStat, but there are lots of other things that come into play. It is basically a performance management system. So that if you have commanders of geographic areas, you expect that they will know the state of crime in their area and have strategies that will have an impact on those.They will be expected to have data that they review every day, and they change their strategies as the situation changes in the neighborhood.
Oakland has a CompStat process now, but they have not had strong geographic commands, which is a thing I’ve been working with them on, and that will soon happen. And they don’t have all of the data that they need to make this really work. So the Bratton group, along with our folks, will show them how to straighten that out and move CompStat into being a highly successful process.
As CompStat moves on, you want it to move from just placing the cops on the dots, which was what was done originally in New York, to a problem solving initiative that looks at the patterns and trends of crime in the city and quickly identifies strategies, involving the community as well as the police, that can really make a difference. And that has been shown to have pretty stellar results.
MARTIN: Oakland residents have said they really want to see regular beat officers patrolling their neighborhoods and getting to know the business owners and the residents. How does your proposal of geographic policing aim to keep officers on their beats when there’s just such a limited force right now?
WASSERMAN: It’s a real challenge that the residents and business people in the city are going to have.
They’re going to have to make a choice, and we’ve just laid this out for the department. They have to cut the number of calls for service they respond to. It’s interesting, as we’ve looked at the call for service demand – the people who call 911 in Oakland. They have a higher level of 911 calls by far than any other major city in California, and I think probably they are at the top of cities in the United States because people call for all sorts of things.
If we adopt a system that says, “You only get a police officer to respond if having a police officer on the scene is going to make a difference;” if we provide alternative responses; if we take lots more reports of crime on the Internet, for example; if we have appointment setting, so that you can have officers who respond to calls at a later time than just having to send them all out at the peak hours, we think we can get 30 percent of those calls or more out of the queue.
We understand that citizens are going to see that they can’t just call and automatically a police officer will be assigned, which in many cases because of the call load, you find that its three, four and five hours before a police officer is going to get there.
The change is going to be – it’s kind of like the cable company. If your cable goes out, even right before the Super Bowl, what you’re told when you call the cable company is, “Well, next Friday, between 1 and 3, we’ll have someone there, and you have to be there. And everybody says, “Fine.”
In a large number of incidents that people call the police for, an immediate response is not required, and we can program out alternative responses in a far more sophisticated and better manner. If this is done, it means officers will not have to always be going to things out of their beat, and the tradeoff for the community is, yes, you won’t have a response right away in many kinds of things. But you will have your beat officer staying in the area in which he’s assigned, staying in your neighborhood, working on the problems that are of concern to you.
MARTIN: In the meantime, that does sound like that requires an awful lot of retraining and re-educating the public about how 911 works. Is that realistic? Do you think that can actually be done?
WASSERMAN: It has been done, and there are cities around the country that are doing it quite successfully. We think it can be done in Oakland. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to have to have a very strong media strategy, but I talked about this in one of the neighborhoods at a presentation I did in Oakland this last weekend. And at the end of the description of it, the group started to clap and cheer because they want officers who stay in their neighborhood, and the sense is that they are willing to make that kind of a tradeoff.
MARTIN: Homicide investigators say the single biggest challenge in solving a crime is getting the community to come forward with information. That’s been a challenge in Oakland. How do you propose improving the relationship between the department and residents?
WASSERMAN: There are a few things here that have to be addressed. One is, you have to get the moral voice established in the community, and we’ve seen that in other Ceasefire cites. And that can really make a difference because if people want to stop the level of violent crime, they have to come forth and say, “We’re not going to tolerate it, and if we know this information, then we’re going to provide that information.”
On the other hand, we have to address the problem of legitimacy of the police in the community. There are real strains in many sections of the Oakland community with its police force, and it requires that officers in some cases change the way they interact with the community. And the community has to start to establish relationships with officers, and we think that geographic policing will allow that to happen. It hasn’t now, and with officers who simply run from call to call to call, there is no time for them to establish those relationships.
It’s going to be a major task. There also are in Oakland, of course, some folks who hate the police, and they don’t want the police to be there. But they are going to be there. And one of the strategies for the development of a long-term strategic plan for dealing with crime in Oakland – and that is the bigger task that will be done over the next five or six months – is to get the community really involved alongside the police department and every agency of government so they can come together and action will occur.
There have been lots of reports in the past, which look really good on people’s shelves. We’re not aiming to do just a report. We aim to get this city organized and everybody committed to taking action. It will make a difference.
MARTIN: Back to William Bratton. For your team, what does he add that they couldn’t do on their own?
WASSERMAN: My team or the Oakland Police Department?
MARTIN: Well, your team as it tries to help the Oakland Police Department.
WASSERMAN: I think Bill is one of the most successful crime strategists in the United States. He had fabulous success in New York. He learned from that experience in New York. He went to Los Angeles. He was very successful in LA, and in a way that was better than the work in New York. The same reduction in crime, but he was able to establish and move his department toward establishing very strong relationships with the community. LA was a very tense city at the time he took over. The police were estranged from the community, and he dramatically changed all of that. And indeed when he left, if you look at the press clips, the minority community came out and said the LAPD is nothing like what it was previously. He has that experience, and his advice and counsel in Oakland will be helpful and is extremely important.
MARTIN: Mr. Wasserman, what do you consider the OPD’s biggest challenge in improving policing?
WASSERMAN: Gee, I know of so many it’s hard to be able to pick out only one, but I think the most important thing is to get, or the biggest challenge is to really establish meaningful relationships with the Oakland community – with the police and the community.
It’s interesting, there’s this Measure Y initiative where you have officers assigned to beats doing problem solving that is important to the community. The ability to integrate the good work that many of those officers are doing with the other officers assigned in the neighborhood can make a lot of difference. Problem solving cannot only be by a specialist group. It’s got to be done by all police officers who have a sense of meeting the needs of the community. The officers in Oakland have not had time for that, and it’s our intention to provide that time for them.
MARTIN: Robert Wasserman, thank you.
WASSERMAN: Okay, thank you very much.
MARTIN: Robert Wasserman heads Strategic Policy Partnership, the consulting firm now working with the Oakland Police Department. I’m Stephanie Martin.