Police and Race in Oakland

at 11:35 PM

Oakland's popular police chief, Anthony Batts, shook the city when he recently announced he was a finalist for the top job in San Jose. He didn't get it and said he is staying. But he made it clear he needs city leaders to show more support for the department, including hiring more officers and supplying better equipment. That's easier said than done when the city faces a $42 million deficit.

If Batts' pursuit of the San Jose job didn't exactly demonstrate a loyalty to Oakland, residents didn't seem to care. There was an outpouring of support for him. Council members said constituents told them to do whatever necessary to keep him. In just over a year, Batts has clearly won the hearts and minds of Oaklanders.

Last year the city saw a significant reduction in violent crime with fewer than 100 homicides for the first time since 2005. Some of that may be cyclical -- other cities also had a drop in violent crime. But Batts is given credit for using a strategic approach to policing, based on an analysis of crime data.

He also emphasizes the importance of improving the department's relationship with communities of color to strengthen policing. He represents a trend. East Palo Alto's police chief Ron Davis makes the same connection and has been praised for improving police community relations there.

For too long police departments and poor, particularly African-American communities have had an adversarial relationship, going back to police attacks on civil rights demonstrators and the abuses that led to the formation of the Black Panther Party. The police were viewed as an occupying force rather than public servants. They weren't trusted, and community residents often did not provide information needed to solve crimes. That poor relationship hurt not only the department's ability to do its job but also public safety in the community.

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Police chiefs don't have to be African-American to understand the problem, but maybe African-American chiefs see it more readily. Both Batts and Davis are black.

The longstanding poor relationship between the police and African-American communities won't be resolved overnight. But it's encouraging that more chiefs are recognizing the importance of repairing and building on the relationship.

With a Perspective, I'm Brenda Payton.

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