One hundred and thirty-one people were murdered in Oakland last year – that’s the highest number since 2006. Other crime is up too, but the number of officers is down. So is police response time.
OPD Sgt. Chris Bolton says those numbers have consequences. “What is lost is time and ability to immerse ourselves with community members in positive interactions,” he says. “What is lost is our opportunity and ability to attend community meetings, to take on roles in community organizations.”
While struggling to meet its responsibilities, the police department is also under pressure to reform – it narrowly avoided a federal takeover late last year. The city already has an independent police monitor; officials have also agreed to hire a court-appointed compliance director. This person will have the power to fire top OPD commanders – including Chief Howard Jordan – as well as to change police policies and practices. He or she will also take on another thorny, persistent issue: the frequency of officer-involved shootings. Since 2010, there have been at least five incidents every year.
Jeralynn Blueford is the mother of the late 18-year-old Alan Blueford – a Skyline High senior fatally shot by an Oakland officer last May.
“The inspector came down, gave us his card,” she said to the Oakland city council and a packed chamber a week after her son was killed. “Informed us our son was in a, I’m quoting, ‘Gun battle – a gun battle with the police.’ We’re like, ‘Not our son, this is not our son. No way.’”
Inconsistencies have plagued the Blueford case from the beginning – and it’s just the latest of other similar cases. As it struggles to make yet another round of policy changes, what will it take for the Oakland Police Department regain community trust?
Adam Blueford is Alan’s father. He says he spoke with Alan 30 minutes prior to the run-in with the police.
“They walked outside to meet some girls supposedly,” Adam says. “And that’s where they were accosted. The police ran down the wrong side of the 90th street, pulled up on them with their lights out, jumped out with their guns drawn.”
Adam and I are standing on the driveway of 9230 Birch St., the spot where his son died on May 6th, 2012. It’s about two blocks from where Oakland Police officers Miguel Masso and Joe Fesmire first saw Alan and two friends. In his mind, Adam Blueford goes back again and again to that night.
“This is where my son died at,” says Blueford. “Right here. Right on the sidewalk.”
That night, the cops are on duty, patrolling their regular beat in Deep East Oakland.
Alan Blueford and his friends have just finished watching a boxing match nearby.
The officers believe one of the young men has a gun. So they approach.
“They asked the young men have they heard gun shots or anything,” Adam Blueford relays. “Alan and his friends said they did not.”
The officers handcuff one of Blueford’s friends, sit the three down on the sidewalk, and start looking for a weapon.
All of a sudden, Blueford takes off running. Masso chases after him. Blueford points a gun at Masso as they run from 92nd Avenue onto Birch Street – this is according to a report released by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office.
The officer thinks his life is in danger. “I was scared,” he says later. “It scared the living crap out of me.”
Blueford and Masso end up in front of a red and white house on Birch Street, where a party is taking place. Again – according to the D.A.’s report – Blueford points his gun at Masso. Masso feels threatened. He shoots.
What actually happened at that point isn’t totally clear. Masso says his first shot caused Blueford to fall into the front gate. But people who saw the incident say Blueford tripped and fell into the fence before being shot.
Initial news reports were just as confused. Several outlets reported an exchange of gunfire between the two, and that Blueford shot Masso.
In the end, none of that turned out to be true.
“There have been things presented as factual information that later turned out to have changed or things the department never said to begin with,” says Sgt. Chris Bolton, the chief of staff for Oakland police chief Howard Jordan. Bolton says there was confusion in the initial moments after the shooting. He says many officers responded to an emergency situation knowing a fellow officer was down, and that a gun was recovered at the scene, but nothing more.
“I think what officers on the scene that evening did was draw what appears to be a fairly obvious conclusion,” he says. “But an incorrect one.”
And Bolton says from the beginning, the police knew they didn’t have all the facts.
“When you review the crime report, there are inconsistencies between witness statements,” he says.
And there are still questions, such as why didn’t Masso turn on his lapel camera? Why was the gun Blueford supposedly wielded found 20 feet away from his body? And why was his fingerprint found on the inside of the ammunition magazine, but nowhere else on the gun?
Bolton says he thinks those details deserve more review. “They deserve a fair, impartial, objective, thorough review,” he says. “And not my or anyone else’s assessment.”
Drawing incorrect conclusions is a problem for the Oakland Police Department. In the past three years, the department has had 18 officer-involved shootings. And the people affected are angry.
Oakland City Council meetings have gotten much more raucous and chaotic these days. Things got so heated recently that council members changed the rules for public meetings. But people are still upset.
For one thing, the police department’s internal investigations remain inconsistent. A recent independent report found that the cases where facts are disputed – like Alan Blueford’s – are the cases in which OPD exhibits “the most deficiencies and the least inquisitiveness.”
Olis Simmons is the CEO of Youth Uprising in East Oakland. She questions whether OPD is serious about enacting reforms.
“Have they really been doing reform for the last 10 years?” she asks. “I don’t think so. I think we’ve been doing, ‘Let’s rotate the chief and let’s have the violence prevention new structure de jour.’”
She says part of the problem is that the department hasn’t had any accountability to the community it serves – even as it enters into the tenth year of court-mandated reform.
“We’ve got one of the lowest rates of police to population per capita of any urban area,” she says. “We simply don’t have enough police to police. The police we have is not trusted or respected. We have a horrendous closure rate on homicides. We’ve got federal oversight because of poor practice profiling.”
Oakland should know who the new compliance director will by the end of January. This person will be tasked with overseeing the police reforms and authorized to make big changes in the department. For real change to happen, it has to be someone both sides can trust – a tall order for a city like Oakland.
Olis Simmons says outside oversight is both a threat and an opportunity.
“The danger of importing people in is that they can see the problems we have and give us their informed opinion about what we need to do,” Simmons says. “The question is, can we also create an environment where they get to understand us deeply so their solutions are suited for our needs?”
And Simmons says the community has a critical role to play in changing the current dynamic.
“Do I approve of their performance of their department? Absolutely not. Do I have an obligation as a community leader to be engaged with them towards improving those outcomes? Absolutely. So there we have it. You have to be a part of the issue to be a part of the solution,” she says.
There are still three pending investigations into the Blueford case. Two are internal OPD probes; the other is by an external citizen’s police review board. That’s not including any investigation the new compliance director might perform. The Bluefords are pursuing a federal civil rights lawsuit against Officer Masso, Chief Jordan, and the City of Oakland.
Back on Birch Street, Adam Blueford is still haunted by his son’s death.
“It’s horrible to think my son laid here to die by himself that night,” she recalls. “And knowing his last words were: ‘I didn’t do anything.’”
We may never know what exactly happened the night Alan Blueford died. But at least some community leaders are optimistic about the potential to finally turn the tide within OPD – and come out of cases like Blueford’s with more answers than questions.