Oakland Police Captain Ricardo Orozco says he’s living his dream of being a cop.
“Ever since I was a small boy, the show that I always liked to watch was Adam 12,” he says, referring to a TV show featuring LAPD officers.
These days, living the dream means managing a cadre of officers in the central part of Oakland. As of June, the city is broken up into five regions, each led by an area commander. A 26-year veteran of the force, Orozco heads Area 3, which includes some of the city’s most expensive zip codes, as well as some of its lower-income ones.
He and the other area captains have increasingly become the public faces of OPD. And Orozco says they’re showing people a police culture that’s changed a lot since he joined the force in the mid-1980s.
“It was difficult for us to understand when we go to crime scenes, why people won't cooperate for us,” says Orozco. “That was challenging. On the flip side, now we understood why certain people in certain neighborhoods didn't cooperate. Not because they didn't want to, but because out of fear. We're there for an hour or two then we leave. Then they have to live in the community.”
A diverse beat
Orozco and I recently spent an afternoon driving around Area 3 in his unmarked black Crown Victoria. We start by heading into Trestle Glen – one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Oakland. Here, people wave to him as we slowly roll through the narrow and windy streets. He’s got his window down and he waves back. I ask what he’s looking for while patrolling.
“Because we get a lot of burglaries in this area, we're looking for something that stands out and doesn't feel right,” he says.
In some ways, this beat is coming full circle for Orozco. He spent his first 10 years as a patrol officer.
“For me, one thing I always get pleasure out of is when I see little kids and they come up to you and they’re happy,” he says. “They’re not threatened. They want to interact and talk with you.”
We turn onto Park Boulevard, and as we drive down the hill, the homes start looking less majestic. I know we’re firmly in the flatlands when I start seeing bars on home windows. As we go from an affluent neighborhood to a lower-income one, I wonder if what he’s looking for changes. He says it doesn’t.
“You're just aware of the neighborhood you're going through,” he says, “and where you have more issues or crime issues occurring.”
We turn left to International Boulevard -- an iconic street that stretches all the way out to Fremont. Colorful mom-and-pop businesses, with signs in Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish and Cambodian dot the street, and it bustles with Latino, African-American and Asian folks. Buses are more frequent; as is the bump of car radio speakers.
Orozco says in this area, one of his biggest problems is that people don’t report crimes.
“A lot of the victims are not English-speaking,” he says. “A lot of that has to do with culture. Fear of the police, not trusting the system, not understanding the system.”
Orozco speaks Spanish, and he says the department is trying to hire more officers with bilingual language skills. Right now, just under a fifth of the force speak another language -- that includes Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and even American Sign Language.
I ask Orozco, who doesn’t live in Oakland, how his job might change if this were his neighborhood.
“That’s a good question,” he says and pauses. “I've lived in Oakland before, I'm trying to relate to that.”
He says even when he lived here, he was always extra-aware of his surroundings. “At times it almost became difficult because you're almost in work mode still because you're seeing and still wanting to do things but you can't because you're off duty,” he says. “That's challenging at times too.”
There are no more smiles or waves in this part of town. Even in an unmarked car, people notice as we drive by. A group of young men follows us with their eyes until we’re out of sight. I sense we’re not so welcome here. So I ask Orozco about the deep-seated distrust between the police and the community.
“For all of us who want to be here and do a good job, whenever you get an officer who doesn't do their job or breaks that trust with the community, it's difficult because it paints us with a broad brush,” he says. “We’re all painted alike.”
It’s not a vague concern. Many people in this part of town feel like cops can get away with murder.
We turn left and head northeast, through the Fruitvale neighborhood, and meander back toward the hills. As we keep talking, Orozco remains firmly positive, emphasizing how the department’s made changes to improve service and community relationships, while also addressing internal issues. He says one thing he tells his officers is that they need to be friendly and approachable.
“Get the message across that a hello and a smile goes a long way,” he says. “I've had officers walk with me in different neighborhoods and come back and say, ‘That was great! Everyone was on our side.’ Yeah, if you get out of your patrol cars, that's what happens. And people want to see you in the light.”
There’s no time to get out of the car, but Orozco tells me about a recent experience he had while out walking in the neighborhood.
“There were two gentlemen sitting on a chair, drinking,” he says. “I waved to them said hello. They were shocked. They turned around, started talking, telling me about the problems in that neighborhood, what was occurring. I passed out my business card, they shook my hand, they were very happy.”
We soon cross the 580 freeway and start ascending the hill. All of a sudden, we’re on Skyline Boulevard, overlooking the whole Bay Area. The clear day makes the water and sky seem extra blue. The Bay Bridge and port cranes are distant and tiny, but easy to spot.
Reflecting on his job, Orozco says oftentimes people see the police as social workers. When I ask what part of the civic sector needs to step up to change this, he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Schools,” he says. “If we put more emphasis and resources in our schools, I think we'd start seeing a transformation. Not just schools but educating parents too, because we have kids growing up in families that generational have been involved in crimes. That have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts that are constantly in the criminal justice system. In a sense, they almost don't have a chance and that's not fair to them.”
It may take more than just the police to bring Oakland’s crime rate down. But for now, area captains like Orozco are charged with building community trust. The question remains whether, and how quickly, that trust will grow.