Can a new crop of Oakland cops help build community trust?
When the Oakland Police Department put out a call for new recruits earlier this year, more than 2,000 people applied – mostly from outside of Oakland. The applicants live in cities in the outer East Bay and in San Francisco, but they also hail from as far away as Illinois and Florida.
In 2010, the city laid off 80 officers due to budget cuts, and the city is ready to start rehiring. Currently, just 9 percent of the current police force is from Oakland. Though the department has increased efforts to hire locally in recent years, it still finds it difficult to find local cops. Many officers, residents and community advocates say the new cops should live in Oakland, know the city, and care about its interests. The challenge is how to entice them.
Recruiting from Within
Lifelong East Oakland resident Reggie Wooden, and applicant for a position in the OPD, says he never really had problems with police, but, “Like every other black kid growing up in Oakland, a fear in cops is just bred in you from day one.” As he got older though, his perspective began to change. Now that he has a 4-year-old son, he wants to "break that cycle of thinking with him,” says Wooden. “I don’t want him to grow up being afraid of the police or not necessarily view police officers as negative people.”
Wooden has a reason to hope his son doesn't fear police: he is currently going through a battery of assessments to determine whether he can become an Oakland police officer himself. Wooden is one of around 150 people left in the application process, vying for 55 open slots in the academy. He says he got tired of complaining about the city’s bad rap. “My motivation is to do whatever I can do to turn this negative view of Oakland around,” he says. “I’m not running for mayor or council anytime soon. And my knowledge of the city would be a great asset to the police department.”
Why it Matters to be From Oakland
Officer Juan Sanchez heads OPD’s recruiting and background unit, and is in charge of the new hiring efforts. He has been a recruiter for eight years. He says that though the mentality back when he started was to recruit out of state, he never agreed with that strategy. He was born and raised in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, and was a beat officer for his first seven years on the force. And he says his local knowledge was a huge asset.
“Right away as soon as they hear me speak in Spanish, they automatically are comfortable,” says Sanchez. “I can communicate with this person. I can tell him, ‘Oh yeah, I recognize him. He grew up here. He went to high school here, he worked here.’ Even more of a connection. Now they feel, not only can I speak the language, but now they’re even more comfortable saying, ‘You know what? The people over there are dealing drugs or they’re doing this.’”
Sanchez says the department is looking for well-rounded applicants who know how to navigate Oakland’s diverse communities. While the hiring process does not award extra points for being a resident, Sanchez says it is an important factor and that the department is especially interested in bilingual applicants who Spanish, Cantonese or Vietnamese. The first round of testing held in May this year attracted a majority minority pool of candidates.
Distrust within parts of the Community
Out in the Oakland neighborhood of San Antonio, activist George Galvis counsels young men who have been named in the Fruitvale gang injunction. This city ordinance forbids the people named in it to carry guns, be seen with each other, or be out in the streets between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The idea is to curb gang activity, but many people think it promotes profiling and police harassment.
George Galvis says the young men he works with have good reason to distrust the police, no matter where they are from. “Gary King, Raheim Brown, the list goes on and on, but there’s a number of police killings that generally aren’t accounted for when we look at the annual homicide rate in Oakland. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to be let go once you become a cop.”
Galvis says the majority of alleged police abuse situations involve a small number of officers. One news report found that just 16 officers were responsible for nearly half of the total shootings between 2000 and 2010. In 2009, OPD fired officer Hector Jimenez after he killed two unarmed suspects within six months. But the department was forced to rehire him just over a year later, after a labor arbitrator ruled in his favor.
“I believe OPD works just like a gang,” says 24-year-old Ruben Leal. He is one of the young men Galvis works with. Leal says OPD maintains an “us versus them” mentality that is not so different from what he sees among his peers. “They protect each other,” he says. “They got that no snitching thing, you know. If a police officer does something wrong, his partner is not going to tell on him. They have that blue code.”
Galvis says he supports efforts to hire and retain local officers, but mostly, he does not think Oakland needs more cops. “Crime goes down, they say it’s because there’s more law enforcement and we need to maintain,” he says. “And when crime goes up, that’s because we need more law enforcement. Either way, the politics of fear tactics used for us to throw more money at them.”
Changing OPD's Reputation, One Officer at a Time
While there are disagreements over whether the city needs more cops, everyone agrees good policing involves more than locking people up.
Officer Juan Sanchez says he regularly approached and engaged people in the neighborhood – especially young men – as part of his patrol duties in the Fruitvale. “There’s been plenty of times, say they were just playing catch, football. ‘Hey, can I play with you?’ They were kind of shocked by it. You don’t know how important that is to these kids here. And I wasn’t doing it to impress anybody. I did it because I knew what it was like growing up in those communities.”
New recruit Alexandra Williams recently started the testing process at OPD headquarters in downtown Oakland. She grew up in Gilroy, where she says officers were not only respected, they were loved. She has lived in Oakland for seven years now, and she says that she feels at home here. “There’s been no other place where I feel like I fit,” she says. “Where I felt the diversity in the community and rich history has spoken to who I am and who I want to be.”
For Williams, being an Oakland cop means more than arresting drug dealers and violent criminals. She is confident in her ability to help change the relationship between residents and police. “Oakland gets a bad rap because people don’t quite understand the beauty of Oakland. As a police officer of Oakland, it’ll be my job to bring that to light. But my hope is that when we get beat cops on the streets, we show there’s positive people who care about the community, who live in the community, I think we can really change.”
When asked how it is possible to turn long-standing negative attitudes around, especially from those who have felt abused by the police, Williams answer is succinct. “One person at a time,” she says. “I am one person.”