If I were an aspiring criminal—say, a young burglar or robber—looking for a locale in which to perfect my trade and make my mark in the underworld, a place where the risk-reward ratio is skewed in my favor, I would seek some city where the police are overworked, demoralized, and controlled by politicians and bureaucrats without a clue as to how to correct matters. With those requirements in mind, I would pack my bag and hop on the first available bus, train, or plane to Oakland, California.
Oakland has long been the poor cousin among Bay Area cities, a place to avoid—and for good reason. Last year, the city ranked third, behind only Detroit and St. Louis, on Forbes’s list of the ten most dangerous U.S. cities. CQ Press, which analyzes crime data across the country, placed Oakland fifth on its list of America’s most dangerous cities in 2010, a slight improvement over the city’s third-place finish the year prior.
The crime trends in Oakland aren’t good. Murders, robberies, aggravated assaults, and burglaries all increased from 2010 to 2011, and in 2012 the figures are even more ominous. As of December 16, using the most recent data available from the Oakland Police Department, murders in the city were up over the previous year by 21 percent, aggravated assaults by 11 percent, and robberies by 23 percent. Burglaries were up by an astonishing 44 percent for the same period.
Not coincidentally, Oakland’s crime wave comes as the city’s police department is in crisis. In 2010, faced with a $30.5 million budget deficit and unable to reach an agreement with the police union on pension contributions, the city laid off 80 police officers and 21 cadets. Since that time, more officers have retired and others have quit; many took jobs with neighboring police agencies. They leave behind a smaller force trying to grapple with higher crime. Making matters worse, the Oakland Police Department now finds itself under the stewardship of a federal judge. U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, who for more than a decade has presided over the ongoing settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit stemming from a police-corruption scandal, will soon appoint a “compliance director” to oversee implementation of police reforms required as part of the 2003 agreement.
As a Los Angeles police officer, I find the situation in Oakland hauntingly familiar. Oakland’s corruption scandal involved four officers working the overnight shift in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. Known among their fellows as the “Riders,” the four were accused of using excessive force and planting evidence, among a wide array of other misconduct. A federal civil rights trial resulted in a settlement of $10.9 million to 119 plaintiffs and an agreement to reform the OPD so as to prevent similar abuses. (The Riders were never convicted of any crime. In multiple criminal trials, jurors either acquitted or failed to reach verdicts on three of them; the fourth apparently fled the country.)
The Riders scandal has several parallels with the LAPD’s Rampart scandal of the 1990s. As with Oakland, the LAPD’s problem also involved a small group of officers at a single police station. And like Oakland, the Rampart scandal resulted in a federal consent decree that placed the entire department under the supervision of a federal judge and a court-appointed monitor. The resulting upheaval in the LAPD dwarfed the actual scale of the scandal, which, though it involved allegations against some 70 officers, resulted in criminal convictions against only five and the removal from the department of seven others.
The consent decree, under which the LAPD operated from 2001 to 2009, brought with it a bureaucratic morass that diverted untold resources—both money and manpower—from the crime-fighting mission to that of complying with the decree’s Byzantine provisions. Just one example: at the station in which I worked during much of the time the consent decree was in effect, able-bodied police officers and supervisors, who otherwise would have been out on patrol, spent their days poring over police reports searching for mistakes on check-boxes. Offending officers were assigned to write follow-up reports explaining their errors, which in most cases had nothing to do with the facts of the underlying arrest or investigation. Multiplied across the LAPD, hundreds of officers were pulled from street patrol and assigned similar chores so as to appease the federal monitor and the judge who appointed him.
Oakland’s cops can expect much of the same. Those officers who have elected to stay with the department, their ranks growing thinner as their workload increases, will become even more frustrated when their policing efforts come under the scrutiny of Judge Henderson and his soon to be appointed “compliance director.” Meantime, Oakland’s besieged citizens can expect even higher crime, as a cumbersome federal bureaucracy erected in the name of oversight and reform grinds down their demoralized police force even further.