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Last month, the Bratton Group released a report on its “findings and recommendations” for reforming the Oakland Police Department’s structure, tactics and deployment to make it more effective in preventing and reducing crime. Oakland PD Chief Howard Jordan had resigned a day earlier. The report was commissioned at a time when Oakland was among the most violent U.S. cities.
The Bratton Group is headed by William Bratton, who served from 2002 to 2009 as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the country’s third largest local law enforcement agency. Prior to heading the LAPD, Bratton held successive posts as head of New York City’s Transit Police, Commissioner of the Boston Police Department, and Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD).
He’s considered one of the leaders of 21st-century new thinking about modern law enforcement, including the use of COMPSTAT, “broken windows” and other community-oriented policing strategies now in wide use around the U.S. In a chat with Joe Domanick, West Coast Bureau chief of The Crime Report, Bratton discussed the structural reforms needed in Oakland, and why change in police strategies is often so difficult to achieve.
THE CRIME REPORT: Your recommendations on how to fix an ailing Oakland Police Department seem to be based on the concepts and tactics that you pioneered in your previous positions. Have police departments like Oakland not gotten the message?
WILLIAM BRATTON: What has been going on in Oakland [mirrors] what American policing looked like in the 1980s and the 1990s. In some respects Oakland is still policing the way that New York was in the early 1990s, and LA was as recently as 2002.
TCR: For example?
WB: They all had remarkably similar dysfunctional [centralized] organizational structures. Oakland has a monolithic focus, including centralized [units] responsible for all homicides, all shooting victims—there are several thousand—and for all police-involved shootings.
TCR: One of the astounding facts in your report was that the Oakland PD, with only 613 officers, had just one part-time investigator tasked with investigating 10,000 burglaries a year.
WB: One investigator dealing with 10,000 burglaries, [means that] nothing is going to be dealt with. Oakland has been an inwardly focused department, and [tactically] its focus was really measuring its success on response to a crime, after that crime had already occurred, rather than trying to find ways to prevent it in the first place. That’s why community policing is so important; it bases policing on the prevention of crime.
TCR: What other problems did you find with the Oakland PD’s organizational structure?
WB: When I [became commissioner of] the NYPD in 1994, most of its specialized units, like those in LA, and [now] in Oakland, were working five days a week, Monday to Friday. But criminals work goes on seven days a week, 24 hours a day. In Oakland robberies reported Friday afternoon or night [aren’t] investigated until Tuesday morning, because on Monday the work load is being distributed.
TCR: You mentioned a problem with 911 calls. What are you doing about that?
WB: [We suggested] putting in call screening that we think can prioritize calls and reduce the 911 workload by up to 40 percent. Oakland is one of the few police departments in America that continues trying to answer every 911 call by sending a police officer. It is crazy that with so few officers they still try to answer every call. A lot of calls don’t need a police officer on a doorstep taking a report.
TCR: Oakland, like Los Angeles, has a serious gang problem, what are you recommending to deal with it?
WB: We’re developing a structure that would be much more focused on reducing crime and focusing on the worst-of-the-worst [criminals.] Within Oakland’s gangs, there are probably ten percent doing the bulk of serious crime. LA has 40,000 gang members, and this year there’ll be about 150 gang-related murders. That means that 39,850 of those gang members are not committing murders. And so the department’s focus on the most violent [of them] is paying dividends. Up until this point [the Oakland PD] has not shown the ability to identify and focus on that group. They are now beginning to do that.
TCR: Can you talk about resistance to reform within the Oakland P.D.? California Governor Jerry Brown was mayor there for eight years – a smart guy who wanted to do something about crime -- but didn’t make a dent in it.
WB: Jerry Brown approached me in 2007 to understand that same thing: why [reform efforts] weren’t working. I recommended some guys in my own consulting company. Their report sat on a shelf until we came back this year. We are now effectively implementing what Jerry Brown had commissioned in his last year as mayor.
TCR: The Oakland PD sounds as difficult to change as the LAPD.
WB: It is easily as problematic as the LAPD in 2002—even more so, because Oakland has fewer police officers per capita than LA. An additional complexity is that LA and New York were significantly more advanced in their policing skills and capabilities than Oakland. The consent decree, which has been in effect for 10 years, compounds the problem.
TCR: How so?
WB: The number of officers that have to be committed to a consent decree –administering it as well as the training required – is a phenomenal drain on a small department’s resources. And when it loses 25 percent of its officers, the impact is even [stronger], because many people are needed to train officers in [the consent decrees mandates.]
When your best crime and homicide investigators [are busy dealing with the consent decree] that is definitely having an impact on your crime situation. There needs to a delicate balance between being effective in fighting crime, while learning to be effective at policing constitutionally [by implementing consent decrees guidelines.] Otherwise, the public’s respect for the police diminishes if they are not keeping families safe.
TCR: What about reforms in training?
WB: My project partner Bob Wasserman is working to totally change training for new officers. When I was LAPD chief, about 40 percent of the department was hired during my tenure. All they understood about policing were the changes we’d brought about. Plus all the 100 commanders were either promoted or assigned by me, so they adhered to the new way of doing things. Oakland has that same opportunity, because they will be hiring hundreds of cops over the next few years and will be totally revamping their training.
TCR: So what’s next for Oakland PD?
WB: There’s potential to fix Oakland’s problems —basically by doing what we are recommending. There’s no-hold up at this point. But the consent decree is not going away. There is no quick fix. All these changes are going to take time to have impact.
Editors Note: William Bratton is a member of the Advisory Board of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, one of The Crime Report’s collaborating partners.
Joe Domanick, a Los-Angeles-based journalist and author, is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, and Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. He is the author of a forthcoming book about the LAPD in the 20 years since the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, to be published by Simon & Schuster in February 2014. Joe welcomes comments from readers.