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Who Gives the Orders? Oakland Police, City Hall and Occupy

The recent declaration of "war" by the NYPD police union shows how the police are a political institution who do not simply follow orders from elected leaders. A similar revolt occurred among Oakland police during Occupy Oakland.

The view that most in the US hold of the police, even many critics of police misconduct, is that they are ultimately accountable to the leadership of the city in which they operate. The mayor is the democratically elected chief executive and the police are committed to following their orders. Since city leaders typically defend and excuse police misconduct, the responsibility seems to rest with City Hall. However, police actions against Occupy Oakland, along with longstanding issues of police accountability during a decade-long negotiated settlement, show how little control Oakland City Hall has over its own police force.

While long simmering disagreements between the Oakland Police Department (OPD) and Oakland City Hall have often been papered over by pubic relations efforts, they have come to the surface during several contentious moments over the years. These rarely play out as an open rebellion, even though the tenor of words has approached that at times. Nonetheless, the hostility of police officers and command staff toward their elected leaders is yet another limitation on “democracy” in the United States, one that is all too often underappreciated.

This essay will look at some of the tensions that have erupted between OPD and City Hall and how OPD has inserted itself as a player in Oakland city politics, particularly during the Occupy Oakland period. It will provide an analysis of how OPD exists as an unaccountable bureaucracy[1] that maintains an enormous amount of power independent from elected politicians. Similar to other bureaucracies, it is self-serving, nepotistic, and hostile to change. Also like other bureaucracies, it is supposed to be apolitical and yet they constantly insert themselves into politics to protect the jobs of their staff and promote the careers of their leaders. Unlike most bureaucracies, it maintains a monopoly on violence. The inability of city leaders to control this bureaucracy is therefore a uniquely dangerous limitation to a “democratic” city government because, like all police, OPD will be hostile to any mass rebellion, regardless of the political composition of the city leadership.

All cops are bureaucrats

In spite of the promises of politicians and movies like Minority Report, the police are hardly able to stop crime from occurring in advance. There is no way they can possibly be on every street-corner and in every home as homicides and burglaries are carried out. The fact that police patrols do not have a substantial impact on crime rates has been well known and documented for quite some time.[2] Even to the minimal extent that the police might be able to lower actual crime rates—and not just manipulate the rate at which crime is reported—they have very little interest in doing so since that would effectively put them out of a job. As an early study criticizing the FBI’s national crime statistics noted:

    Like all bureaucracies, criminal justice agencies can hardly be expected to implement policies that would diminish their importance; therefore, money appropriated to fight crime is allocated less to prevent crime than to detect and apprehend criminals after the crime has been committed.[3]

A key insight here is that police departments are like all bureaucracies. They are required to justify their existence to politicians and taxpayers year after year with visible, perceived results. Having done so, they are able to further the careers of their own staff and management as well as the political leaders whose fates rest upon them. An analysis of this dynamic was applied to the Sanitation Department of New York City in terms that are far too rarely applied to the police:

    To say [the Sanitation Department’s] goal is to pick up the garbage—even to pick it up frequently, pick it all up, and do it cheaply—does not tell us much. These are not goals of that department but merely loose constraints under which those who use the organization must operate, and these are not really any more important than the following constraints: The cushy top jobs in the department can be used to pay off political debts; some groups can use the Sanitation Department as an assured source of employment and keep others out, upper management can use its positions as political jumping-off places or training spots, equipment manufacturers use it as an easy mark for shoddy goods; and, finally, the workers are entitled to use it as a source of job security and pensions and an easy way to make a living.[4]

OPD is the penultimate bureaucracy in Oakland—there is no other city service that consumes the resources that it does by multiple measures. OPD takes up 40 percent of the city’s General Fund while another nine percent goes to servicing debt, no small part of which is attributable to the generous Police and Fire Retirement System. The current and retired staff of OPD live overwhelmingly outside of Oakland, meaning that a substantial sum of money contributed to city coffers by the largely working-class and non-white tax-payers is exported to the largely white, upper-middle class suburbs. Additionally, over ten years the City of Oakland has paid out $58 million in settlements to victims of police brutality while regularly exonerating officers for their abuse, payments which ultimately help individual officers avoid accountability for their actions.[5]

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Oakland police are among the highest paid employees in the city. In 2011, 178 members of OPD in a department of fewer than 700 received a higher total compensation than Mayor Jean Quan. In fact, nine of the top ten earners among City of Oakland staff were police, including the Chief, two Deputy Chiefs, one Lieutenant, three Sergeants and even two Officers, all of them receiving a total compensation of over $300,000. The following year the trend continued, with seven of the top ten compensation packages going to OPD staff. Looking at base salary alone, the top two earners in 2012 were OPD Chief Howard Jordan at $222,236.69 and his unelected supervisor (who reports directly to the Mayor) City Administrator Deanna Santana who made $273,000. The Mayor—the highest elected official in the City of Oakland—had the 58th highest salary at a mere $137,547.80, which is certainly generous but a bit embarrassing considering that the City Administrator who reports to her made nearly twice that much. Money may not directly translate into power, but we certainly get the picture of a City Hall that prioritizes the unelected bureaucrats in law enforcement over the elected leadership.[6]

These highly paid police officers play an integral role in City Hall politics as well as in the economic environment as they help further the goals of the business community. Business development plans are hardly possible without the efforts of the police to maintain order—repressing riots and other disruptive protests—but they also play a critical role in the day-to-day business operations of the city. Development and gentrification projects require the police to keep the poor, the homeless and the Black and Latino residents out of various quarters designed to reap the business of white professionals. Every stop-and-frisk, every baton blow and every Black teenager murdered by the police is a reminder of a racial status quo and de facto segregation necessary to assure an environment that can accommodate suburban white families and tourists. High crime rates are bad for business and if cops cannot stop crime in advance, they can at least create zones that are perceived to be safe.

The relationship between business and law enforcement was described by Anthony Batts, the Chief of OPD when Mayor Jean Quan was inaugurated in 2011 who resigned days after the establishment of the first Occupy Oakland camp:

    I believe police departments are economic drivers. If you have bad stories coming out about crime or bad policing, investors are not going to come to a city. So in an industrial age city that is built much like Oakland has been an industrial age power house, it has to redo itself, it has to re-engineer itself with a different economy, and in order for that to happen you have to have a lot of investment, whether its federal funds or from private investors to come. Nobody’s going to invest in a city when you have a high crime rate so you have to drop that.[7]

There are clearly those in law enforcement who realize the critical role they play in the business environment, and many in the business community who realize how critical the police are to their investment plans. In fact, the decisions of these two groups in investing and protecting private property can have far more influence than the relatively minor impact of a city government that shuttles funds around to accommodate them. Businesses leaders and police staff may spend their entire careers in a city like Oakland, while councilmembers and mayors come and go every four to eight years and likely feel beholden to the permanent forces in the city, rather than the other way around.

Whether or not individual police officers appreciate their effect on the business environment, or simply accept the racist logic of their role as occupiers in Black and Latino communities, their paychecks are nonetheless contingent on the business environment of their employing city. The amount of money brought in by various property and real estate taxes is directly related to the state of the economy and the wealth brought in by residential homeowners and employers. A city that sees its wealth fleeing in the form of white-flight to the suburbs and tourism weakened by concerns about crime and public safety will inevitably find its coffers drained by lower tax revenue and the police budget may suffer along with it.

Serving and protecting itself

The protection of OPD by city officials has reached extraordinary measures in recent years. To give one example, the Oakland City Council voted to pay $40,000 in punitive damages assessed on an individual officer who strip-searched men in public. The city had no obligation to pay these damages, which were assessed as a punishment on the officer who committed this outrageous offense. This move by the City Council both protected and gave a green light to abusive officers, exposing precisely why the department has been incapable—or rather uninterested—in reforming itself. Examples like these beg the question: does the Oakland Police Department protect and serve Oakland, or does the City of Oakland protect and serve OPD?[8]

In opposition to the bureaucratic perspective is the commonly held view of police departments as military operations. This assumes that police departments are strictly hierarchical with a precise chain of command, leading straight up to the Chief and to City Hall, in which orders are given and followed and insubordination is strictly forbidden. Yet, there is a significant difference between police and military chains of command, as described in one study of police bureaucracy:

    In the military, the decision to mobilize is made by order from the top of the chain of command on downward; whereas in the police organization, it is the officer on the street who “makes the decisions that mobilize the bureaucracy,” often alone, and almost always without direct, on-site supervision.[9]

This gives a better sense as to why individual officers get away with misconduct so often. Yes, their brutality is purposefully implemented as part of gentrification policies in order to keep the poor, Black and Latino populations repressed and out of sight, but it is also the case that individual officers carry an enormous amount of power by the design of the police institution itself. Each time an officer’s conduct is questioned, the entire decision-making structure of the police is potentially under scrutiny and multiple layers of leadership, both inside the department and in City Hall, defend the correctness of the decision in order to avoid dealing with the process. The extent of this decision-making power was once described by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in stark terms:

    The policeman on the beat, or in the patrol car, makes more decisions and exercises broader discretion affecting the daily lives on people every day and to a greater extent, in many respects, than a judge will ordinarily exercise in a week.[10]

The result is a process in which individual officers carry an enormous amount of power, not only on the streets but in the political process as well, as politicians refuse to either disrupt the workings of the institution or appear remotely “soft on crime.”

For over a decade, OPD has operated under a Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA) resulting from a lawsuit in which a rookie officer testified that a group of officers known as “The Riders” were guilty of abuse, planting evidence and false arrests. The scandal enveloped the entire department and led to a $10.9 million settlement and the NSA, a series of reforms that OPD must comply with under the close watch of a Federal court monitor who reports to Federal Judge Thelton Henderson.[11] However, years have gone by with OPD showing little progress or even backsliding on the prescribed reforms, leading one retired OPD commander to admit that they “goofed around for the first five years” of the NSA.[12]

In fact, the Oakland police have openly flaunted their disapproval of the Mayors of Oakland and Judge Henderson during this period. Court filings in the Riders case in late 2012, which sought federal receivership of the police department by the plaintiffs, exposed some of the insulting, childish and offensive attitudes that members of the department expressed of the people who are ostensibly their superiors. In one instance, pictures of Quan and Henderson were found at OPD headquarters covered in racially charged graffiti, including one depicting Quan as a dragon. In another, photos were found of Quan and her predecessor, Mayor Ron Dellums, believed to have been used as dartboards. In 2012 an OPD Sergeant told a Citizens Police Academy—an educational series open to the public—that Henderson “has an agenda” and was “in the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army]”—a left-wing guerilla organization in the 1970s. [13] In case their intentions were not clear, another flier was left at the OPD shooting range depicting a World War II pilot with the text, “You shut the fuck up. We’ll protect America. Keep out of our fucking way, liberal pussies.”[14] With these attitudes flaunted around the department, it should be no surprise that OPD has refused to cooperate with the court’s reform efforts or follow orders from City Hall.

The Mayor of Oakland does not oversee OPD directly. Rather, the City Administrator, who is appointed by the Mayor and serves at her discretion, directly oversees the department and the Chief reports directly to her.[15] Therefore, there is a chain of command, or at least a path of hiring and firing, directly from the lowest OPD rookie officer through the City Administrator and into the Mayor’s office. Yet, in dealing with Occupy Oakland, we have the extraordinary case in which an indecisive Mayor was at times pressured and possibly even overruled by City Hall staff who reported to her, including some in the law enforcement branch of the City of Oakland.

As Jean Quan moved from her seat in the Oakland City Council to the Mayor’s office in 2010, OPD saw in her not an ally but a mortal enemy—a former Berkeley radical no less. Heightening this tension was an incident shortly before she was elected in which Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, her fellow Councilmember and Mayoral opponent, linked arms in front of a police line at a protest for Oscar Grant, a young man murdered by police while lying face down on a rapid transit platform in Oakland. The police were furious about the incident and considered pressing charges. “[Quan and Kaplan] were encouraging people not to listen to us,” an officer told the San Francisco Chronicle. “If we had needed to go into the crowd, we shouldn’t have to worry about going through a council member first.”[16] With the arrival of the Occupy Oakland encampment in front of City Hall it was almost inevitable that Quan, with a liberal background and progressive base of support, would soon come into conflict with the forces of law and order inside her police department. Much of the tension played out between Quan and her office and that of City Administrator Deanna Santana over whether and how to evict the camp and in dealing with the political liabilities thereafter.

These events, in which a liberal mayor had to deal with a disruptive protest movement literally at her office doorstep, led to the rare circumstance that Oakland found itself in. Quan was perpetually torn between siding with the protesters, whose broad message was widely supported by the people of Oakland, and siding with the police and the business community, who wanted an end to the disturbances in the downtown area. This was just two years after a series of protests and riots erupted throughout Oakland in response to Oscar Grant’s murder, often near the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway where the Occupy Oakland encampment resided, during which it became common for businesses to board up their windows to protect from vandalism. The fear from the Oakland establishment was that the city would become known as “dangerous” and “violent,” harming efforts to transform the city’s image into one that is hospitable to San Francisco transplants. The resulting situation provides a case study of what happens when the elected city leadership and the police department it runs do not see eye-to-eye. Rather than a strict following of orders by the police and Quan’s underlings, we find a series of maneuvers and even outright insubordination that were highly successful at manipulating the Mayor as she vacillated between confusion and inconsistency.

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Scott Jay lives in Oakland, CA. He was involved in Occupy Oakland and the Justice for Alan Blueford campaign.

I do hope you will read the rest of the article and also the footnotes at the end. (moderator)