Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Thoughts on the Police

Over the last several weeks, I've been doing something new: I've been getting to know the Oakland Police Department.

No, I haven't been arrested. Although I did spend the other afternoon riding around in a police cruiser. In East Oakland.

I subscribe to a local Yahoo! newsgroup on crime in the neighborhood. (After all, I live in the 4th most dangerous city in the United States.) Through the Yahoo! group, I learned that the OPD regularly offers a free "Citizens' Academy" - a 14 week program, available to any Oakland resident who's willing to show up every Saturday from 9 to noon. (They do run background checks. I doubt they'd let you attend if you had outstanding warrants.) You get presentations on every department (traffic, patrol, vice and narcotics, crime lab, K-9, etc.), given by people with experience in the department. I'm enjoying the class thoroughly; I've been reading detective stories for 50 years or so, and at last I'm finding out how a real police department functions, as opposed to the ones in the books.

So how did I end up riding around in a cruiser? Part of the Academy is a "ride-along" - each student picks a date and a shift, and you show up at the beginning of the shift and are assigned to an officer for the duration, usually 6 hours (although the officer's shifts are 12 hours). You ride around with him (I was assigned to a guy, although OPD has female officers) and see what he does. I went in with him on several low-risk interviews (a parked car bashed by a hit-and-run; a stolen vehicle; a school administrator trying to get a restraining order for a problem parent; a woman whose neighbor complained that her pets were waking him up). I sat in the car for some edgier stuff: a bunch of middle-school kids, fighting; a traffic stop of a rolling boom box. We answered a call for support on the school fight; the officer said that we "weren't going especially fast," and he didn't use the lights or siren, but we were going a whole lot faster than I'd ever drive through that kind of traffic!

I can't discuss one call very much, since I hope it goes to court, but there was an assault and robbery; the officer took the report, and realized that the suspects might still be in the area; he called for support, and with his colleagues' help, got them into the station in handcuffs, with solid evidence. (Well, it looked solid to me.) Let's just say they were very mean, but they weren't very bright.

So what does a police officer do all day? Think a minute and you'll realize: he does paperwork. He fills out endless reports. He listens to people and writes down what they tell him, by hand, then takes it back to the station and files it. The officer I accompanied was tirelessly patient and courteous, I never heard him raise his voice. I saw him put his hand on his gun once, but he never drew it. He was also very nice about explaining to me what he was doing and why.

The class isn't my only interaction with OPD. I'm also active in the local
Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, which does liaison between police and the neighborhood; and I'm volunteering as a citizen interviewer on the oral review boards which are part of the OPD's hiring process. So one way and another, I'm meeting a lot of cops these days.

Frankly, my opinion of the OPD has changed because of this. (Not that I ever fully bought the '60's rants about "the pigs.") The officers I've met are sharp, dedicated professionals, and they love their jobs. Some of them even love (incredibly) being cops in Oakland. Some of them are Oakland natives, born and raised. Obviously there's some selection in the people who present to the class; still, the message is very consistent, and it doesn't correlate with unquestioning support of the OPD management. But the ordinary cops on the street? They're class acts. I just wish there were more of them; Oakland has half the national average of police officers for a city of 400,000; and more than twice the crime. This can't be a coincidence.


  1. These programs remind me of those "Bad Boys" cop shows that are popular now on television, where a camera crew accompanies patrol officers and follows them right on through the confrontations, into the homes and on-foot chases, etc. My thought is that they answer to some prurient interest on the part of the viewer, who gets to see mostly pathetic lower class poor people--living lives on the edge (drugs, petty family and relational disputes, etc.)--subjected to the indignity of exposure, loss of privacy, and embarrassment--added to the misery of arrest, detention, and eventual probable conviction. I don't think they're meant to teach us anything; I guess that they give people a smug satisfaction that someone ELSE is getting caught, and that they ("oooohh") get to see it all in living color. It makes me sick to my stomach.

    Most serious crime in our society is not pursued, and/or is prosecuted ineptly. The majority of police time and resources goes towards controlling petty crime, or generating revenue.

    As an institution, police departments have a checkered history in America. They have traditionally been manned by those from the lower social ranks, because policing was one of the few respectable or semi-respectable gigs available to those with little education, and/or few social connections. Hence the Irish in Boston and New York and Chicago, the Redneck Whites in the South, Hispanics in the Southwest, etc. Police corruption in large cities and small is unfortunately endemic in America; the bigger the stakes, the wider the net of compromise. Class, racial, sexist and life-style tensions have always characterized police department life.

    So it's a wonder that our police do as good a job as they do. The modern profile of a well-intentioned, committed, intelligent, well-trained, even-handed officer, equipped with lots of high-tech stuff and closely monitored for loyalty and behavior, sounds convincing, but it's rarely true in reality. Unlike the military, police officers are well-paid, but, based on the risks and stresses they must endure, higher pay is often the only insurance society has to insulate the departments from the attractions of petty corruption. Organized crime both large and small generates lots more capital than most people realize; which is how otherwise incorruptible people can get caught up in the stakes. The New York Municipal Police Department has been exposed repeatedly.

    I met quite a few policemen in retirement and disability interviews for the Social Security Administration in San Francisco over the years. Generally, they were good guys, many of whom felt they'd been "screwed" by the bureaucracy, or had not been appreciated for their efforts. I think that's a common sentiment, which doesn't get much press. Often, they're squeezed between a hard-fisted management and a suspicious public, quickly reprimanded, but seldom rewarded for work "in the line of duty."

    These days, some new/old ideas are being tried, which may hold promise. In Berkeley, some officers are assigned to bike duty or sidewalk duty, and have a real presence in the community.

    Recently, I was attacked by a bicyclist in Kensington. I beeped him and passed him on a neighborhood road. Enraged, he followed me four blocks to my home, and proceeded to engage me in fisticuffs in my own driveway. When I threatened to call 911, he quickly fled. The patrolman took a full 20 minutes to respond to my call. If this bicyclist, who was (I think) a Russian, had wanted to do me any real harm, or had been carrying a weapon, the police response would not have prevented me from being seriously hurt. That's not an encouraging sign. Officers are always happy to give you a speeding ticket, but not always so responsive to real distress calls.

  2. Anonymous6:27 PM

    Consider that there aren't enough police per X number of citizenry, and perhaps your call was responded to as quickly as possible. It is a little like the hospital emergency room. Our emergency is OUR Emergency, which is also true of everyone else in the waiting room. We want to be seen NOW, which is also true of everyone else in the waiting room. The docs get to us as they can. It is the same with the police. I doubt the cop who responded was just cooling his or her heels and finally managed to find time to respond. We simply need more cops.

    On another point, cops are better educated today than "back when." They have to be with all that paperwork. We get people wanting to be cops and border patrol in our community college classes. They may not be rocket scientists, but there is a shortage of those as well in the US. Too many rocket scientists have been recruited to work in foreign countries. Hmm, thinking laterally again. I'll quit.