By Gregory K. Taylor
When one's house is burning, the first course of action is to extinguish the fire.
Although it has been 35 years since I last suited up for the Oakland Police Department, even so, when it comes to the subject of public safety in the city of Oakland I feel I still possess a certain bona fide expertise. In response to Oakland Post Publisher Paul Cobb's challenge, I will attempt to proffer what I think is the problem (not rocket science), and what solutions exist to bring about a substantive change in the crime rate of Oakland (also not rocket science).
I was born in Berkeley and raised in east Oakland where I attended elementary, junior high, and high school from 1956 to 1969. I have fond memories of an idyllic time when the milkman, in full white regalia, delivered milk to the family doorstep. This was an unremarkable time when I could ride my bike to the store and lay it down, untethered and unlocked, on the sidewalk. Gun violence in my neighborhood was a scene played out on the silver screen at the local theater. Indeed, the ultimate conflict arbiter resided in our fists where the scrapes, bumps, and bruises of a fight would, more often than not, lead to a new friendship. Such was Oakland of the past which is altogether elusive and wanting today
The Oakland Police Department, once the bellwether of policing, has now been reduced to an agency so hamstrung that it can't, with any consistency, carry out many of its designed duties--or get out of its own way. In 1972, at the age of 21, I joined the department which at that time was a bastion of technological prowess that stood head and shoulders above all other California Police Agencies--and that included the famously touted LAPD.
Although they are unexceptional today, in the early 1970s OPD was one of three police agencies in the entire country that had in-vehicle Computers called Digital Computers, AKA, Digicom—Albany, N.Y. and Kansas City, MO., were the other two. Argus, our helicopter, was so indispensable to the beat officer that exhausting foot chases often turned into a couple of fence hops followed by the capture or surrender of a befuddled suspect. We were always on the cutting edge of technology. I remember patrolling in a newly minted police vehicle loaded with all the bells and whistles of its time thinking I was piloting a state-of-the-art fighter jet or a NASA space capsule. The array of buttons on the overhead console, paired with a touch-sensitive digital map mounted above the computer, had us all beaming with pride to be part of such a forward-thinking, highly-trained, superbly equipped police organization in all of America. OPD was so respected and well-thought-of that most of the surrounding agencies like Hayward, San Leandro, Alameda, and Fremont paid to put their recruits through Oakland's Academy which ran nonstop three classes at a time.
Now, sadly, and with a bit of embarrassment, I hear reports of the Highway Patrol and the Alameda Co. Sheriff's Office (ACSO) taking calls for service in Oakland. How could this be? In my day, the deepest a CHP officer ventured into Oakland was to find a place to eat off a nearby freeway ramp, and an ACSO officer might occasionally be seen, if one didn't blink, serving a subpoena or an eviction notice. As it is today, the homicide rate was ascending the charts establishing high water marks for the record books; all the same, there was a high clearance and conviction rate to keep pace with the murder rate. The number of sworn personnel, as best I can remember, never exceeded 715--if it ever got that high.
So, where did the train run off the track? How can the department, thus, the city be returned to the previous years of competent and effective crime-fighting when Oakland is in perpetual-fiscal decline? A shrinking tax base caused by fleeing businesses due to persistent crime stifles new development and home ownership. This vicious circle of reciprocating cause and effect can NOT be hidden by a mulligan stew of tax increases, fines, fees, infrastructure neglect, service charges, or grants & subsidies; nor can creative accounting, that would make a wall street derivative broker blush, put off the inevitable collapse (bankruptcy). How long can the city fathers continue to rob Peter to pay Paul before the lights are turned off? Until Oakland's checkbook is brought into balance the fate of Detroit looms large in its future?
Oakland will forever be chasing its tail, while crime, and its perception, remains the reputation of the city. There must be the will, the know-how, and most of all, the persuasive personality to coalesce disparate views into an effective plan of attack to do what must be done. Name one city where crime is an issue and the people are prosperous. You want your tax base and your educated class back in numbers that matter? Only when it is SAFE to return.