Brown’s Police Chief Choice Could Help Him in ‘06 Campaign By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 03, 2004

The Oakland chips are beginning to fall in place for Mayor Jerry Brown’s run for California attorney general in 2006, and if you thought the whole purpose of the effort was for the Oakland chips to fall in place for the rest of us in Oakland, you went and slept through part of this production, didn’t you? 

First, thanks to the Oakland Tribune’s Peggy Stinnett, we learn that Mr. Brown’s old buddy, Jacques Barzaghi, is moving to Morocco, possibly to take advantage of a sister city program Oakland set up with that country. Ms. Stinnett believes that Mr. Barzaghi is gone for good, writing that “the parting of Jacques and Jerry has been like an unfriendly divorce. ... [T]he two men are seriously breaking up their long relationship, and it looks like the final parting with an ocean between them.” Me, I’m not so sure that this isn’t just a just a way to get a lingering embarrassment out of the picture during the campaign—you know, out of sight, out of mind—and that Mr. Barzaghi won’t be turning up in the Brown camp when and if Mr. Brown returns to state office. In any event, another chip in place. 

In the area of law and order—critical to any prospective attorney general—Oakland had its 79th and 80th murders earlier this month. While that makes it a particularly bad year for those 80 people who were killed within our borders, it allows Mr. Brown to declare that murders are “down” from last year, which is something like the old Malcolm X line of someone sticking a knife into your back and then—when you holler in protest—pulling it halfway out and calling it progress. But count on Mr. Brown to use it as a yardstick of success in his upcoming campaign. 

The defeat of a third violence prevention measure during Mr. Brown’s terms would have been a serious blow to both his law enforcement and leadership credentials, but with the passage of Measure Y, he’s pretty much left with the picking of Police Chief Richard Word’s replacement to put his law resume in order. 

But picking the new police chief may be stickier than you think, even with Mr. Brown’s unlimited selection powers under Oakland’s Strong Mayor law. 

Continue, for a moment, under the premise that the mayor is lately making Oakland decisions with a full eye on their impact on his chances for the office of state attorney general. 

It’s hard to get elected to that post without the general support of police unions, and California police unions won’t generally look favorably on an attorney general candidate if the police union in his own city is less than enthusiastic about his prospects. That would lead you to believe that Mr. Brown is going to be careful not to pick an Oakland police chief who is disliked by the Oakland Police Officers’ Association. 

But some Oaklanders, thinking that since they’re footing the bills for all of this, are of the opinion that the Mayor might want to come around and consult with them, too. A group of impatient Oakland citizens decided not to wait on Mr. Brown to take the first step, but put together a meeting the other evening over at the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church to offer some suggestions as to what criteria the mayor should use to pick the new chief. Mr. Brown said he welcomed the input and came out for a while to listen as a long line of citizens walked up to the microphone to have their say. Mr. Brown being Mr. Brown and easily bored with citizen talk, he decided not to actually stay and listen to the whole group, but ducked out midway through to chat on camera with the television reporters out in the foyer. 

Which would lead one to believe that the mayor is continuing on Course A; that is, picking a new police chief in close consultation with the Oakland Police Officers Association, and lesser consultation with the many Oaklanders whose streets the police department patrols. 

There is danger in doing so. 

While Oakland citizens have no influence whatsoever on police unions around California, they might have some influence on other citizens. The issue of a new police chief is so important in Oakland that some of these citizens might take it upon themselves to detail their experiences with Mr. Brown up and down the state, if they feel they are being seriously and completely frozen out. An Oakland Truth Squad, sending out regular press releases and fact sheets and following Mr. Brown from city to city, would probably not be particularly helpful to his campaign. It might, in fact, be more embarrassing than Mr. Barzaghi sticking around. 

But the more serious danger is that hiring a new Oakland police chief in the same mold as the last Oakland police chief—that is, one who cannot or will not change the culture of the Oakland Police Department, to borrow a comment made at the Lakeshore meeting by Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer—could lead to continued social unrest and problems between Oakland police and Oakland citizens. 

The pots are boiling on several burners right now, most notably with the city’s African-American and Latino youth. Oakland has a serious problem of making these young folks feel that they do not belong in this city, first by dissing and dismissing them when they tell us we’re not providing anything for them “to do,” then by rousting them when they create their own social outlets—such as sideshows—that many older Oaklanders believe are not appropriate. Oakland police as they are presently organized are poorly equipped to handle tense crowds of dark Oakland youth. In events such as the Festival at the Lake, Carijama, and the sideshows, in fact, they have tended to make things worse, escalating the tensions rather than easing them. Oakland needs a police chief who is either smart enough to be able to put together a separate youth squad with officers of a different mentality to deal with crowd control and other non-hard-crime youth problems, or else has enough courage and political strength to tell the mayor and City Council that some other agency needs to be developed and put in charge. 

But the youth problem is only the tip of the iceberg, the portion which is generally the quickest and most likely to blow. Underlying that is an Oakland police culture that sees itself separate and aloof from citizens in much of the city, particularly those parts of the city where citizens suffer most from crime and violence. Many of those citizens were among the crowd that gathered at the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church to give their input to Mayor Brown on the selection of a new police chief. A better relationship between the police and them would almost certainly lead to reductions in Oakland’s crime and violence. A continued bad relationship will probably mean continued problems, and that won’t look good on Mr. Brown’s resume as he tries for Attorney General. And all of it starts with who’s the mayor’s choice for the new chief. 

In other words, played the wrong way, Mr. Brown’s police chief chip could easily end up blowing his whole carefully-constructed stack. Let’s watch and see how this goes.