New Police Chief Anthony Batts has been going around town giving local neighborhood groups his perspectives on his new job and answering questions from the community. I got a chance to hear him speak at Montera Middle School last Thursday. Overall, I was quite impressed. He was a good speaker, seemed engaged and committed, and answered questions in a straightforward, albeit diplomatic manner. He acknowledged that OPD was “broken,” and that there was an overwhelming amount of work to be done. He was clear we need more police, but also acknowledged that the City is telling him there’s no money. My overall impression was that if the City doesn’t give him the resources he says he so desperately needs, they’re tying both hands behind his back.
One of the points that he made that I thought merited particular attention included his statement that the police force is the “economic driver” of a city. Without an effective police force, he said, a city cannot be safe, and if the city isn’t safe, people won’t want to live here, and businesses won’t want to do business there either. This is a point I have continuously been trying to make with City leaders. I hear them say they can’t afford more police (or even full staffing). I say, you can’t afford not to have more police. It’s the usual, penny-wise, pound foolish scenario, and I hope Chief Batts is better at getting the message across than I’ve been.
Chief Batts was also very, very clear about his position on the size of the current police force. He repeatedly stated that the force was understaffed (currently at 791, a full 12 officers under the authorized strength), and that Oakland needed way more officers than even the authorized strength of 803. He didn’t want to give his opinion on what he thought would actually be a proper size, because he wanted to study the needs of the department further, and would be reviewing the results of numerous interviews and studies before committing himself to a number. This seemed reasonable and appropriate. But he clearly believes we need more officers than we have, and that department is stretched way too thin. He stated that the current response times are “unacceptable.”
This guy clearly has decades of experience in law enforcement, and has studied the academic literature as well. In addition, he said he took a survey of his entire department, and got hundreds of responses, comments and suggestions. In the months prior to his starting the job, he walked around various parts of Oakland and interviewed random community members. So for those people who claim the answer is not more police, well, I would encourage you to go hear Chief Batts. More police alone is clearly not the answer. We need effective management and leadership too. But effective management and leadership alone is not going to fix things. That’s like sending General MacArthur into battle with no army.
On the subject of Measure Y, he was careful about what he said. He acknowledged the lawsuit, and referenced the fact that his “attorney” was in the audience, who is an “expert” on Measure Y. (Notably, the attorney who he referred to was nobody I have ever dealt with and has had nothing to do with my litigation). He was obviously not a fan of Measure Y, but that’s hardly a surprise. He said he’d clearly rather have more flexibility in assigning officers to where he thought they were needed most. Sorry, Chief, that’s not what we voted for. We voted for a Measure that requires OPD to give each beat their own PSO, and for good reason. And if the City gave OPD a reasonable amount of staff to begin with, the Chief wouldn’t have to feel like he’s in an ethical quandary about not having to pull a PSO out of his/her beat to respond to a 911 call.
Throughout his presentation, Batts stated that the City was telling him there was no money for staff, no money for academies, no money for anything. So he said he “wasn’t going to ask.” Well, he’s brand new to the job and probably is reluctant to start ruffling feathers right off the bat, so that didn’t surprise me either. One of the questions he got went to the issue of how much he thinks he can actually accomplish, and an estimated timeline. He answered the question honestly: he said that without the resources he needs, he really wasn’t sure how much he could do at all. I hope he sends the same message to the City officials who need to hear it. This guy seems good, but he ain’t no miracle worker.