Monday, February 11, 2013

Robert Wasserman as Crime Consultant - No New Ideas and a Huge Disappointment

Yesterday afternoon I attended a presentation by Robert Wasserman, the consultant the City is paying $250,000 plus for ideas on reducing crime.  After hearing the presentation, I was not impressed.  For the most part, it was nothing but a big PR event, complete with a full complement of City staffers (Quan, Santana, Chief Jordan, Karen Boyd, police PR professionals, and a couple of council members).  Basically, it was an opportunity for the City and its hired guns to say, “look, we’re not doing nothing about crime!”  No, they’re not doing nothing.  They’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – again.

Wasserman’s speech focused on “problem solving,” “community policing,” “community engagement,” and “Neighborhood Watch.”  These ideas are not new.  We’ve had them in Oakland for years.  Wasserman claimed, “the time is now.”  Somebody needs to tell him that the time was “now” for putting a stop to Oakland’s unacceptable crime a long time ago.  It was certainly “now” back in 2004, when voters approved Measure Y.  It’s not like we didn’t have a plan back then.  We did.  It was to pour $20 million a year into violence prevention programs, and to hire 63 new officers to increase staffing to 803, and give every beat its own “problem solving/community policing” officer.  We were told that if we approved the plan, crime would go down.  We liked the plan, and we voted for it.  Then, as usual, the City didn’t follow through.  We got the promised staffing for less than 6 months.  For that brief period, lo and behold, crime actually did go down.  But then the City laid off 80 officers, refused to hold new police academies, and allowed staffing to sink to the approximately 610 officers we have now.  To add insult to injury, the number of problem solving officers was cut in half.  Surprise, surprise, crime skyrocketed. 

So how can Wasserman, or any of the City officials sitting there with their eyes glazed over, really believe he is proposing anything new?  He’s not.  Worse yet, he barely even acknowledged the tremendous understaffing issues.  He mentioned that the biggest targets for residential burglaries are houses that were just burglarized not long ago, because the bad guys know there’s a nice brand new TV in there.  So he was proposing intense surveillance of recently burglarized houses.  Oh really?  Where are the resources for that going to come from?  Our current force doesn’t even have time to respond to 911 calls, let alone do surveillance. 

Even though Wasserman emphasized the need for “community involvement” at every opportunity, neither he nor the City officials present appeared to be that interested in actually hearing input from the audience.  Dozens of people filled out question cards, and others wanted an opportunity to ask questions verbally.  But Quan monopolized most of the limited time left bloviating about her great relationship with the “White House” and name dropping other federal officials.  Most people left with their questions unanswered, and little if any detail on what type of changes might actually be in store.  What a disappointment. 


  1. While I am no Pollyanna, I think your characterization of Wasserman’s presentation is a bit unfair.

    Other than certain specialties such as advertising, consultants are rarely responsible for coming up with new ideas. Consultants are generally more concerned with setting priorities, creating realistic timelines, developing operational goals, monitoring results, etc.

    Some things Wasserman talked about that you didn’t mention:

    * Geographic policing with 5 areas. Previously Oakland had 3. Why the number? Why not 8? I don’t know, but I am pretty sure Wasserman has some rationale based on prior experience.

    * Having officers in dispatch to resolve problems without having to send patrol. Will this work, I don’t know, but it was presented as a tactic to free-up resources.

    * Focusing on quick reductions in violence with an emphasis on using Ceasefire. As you mention, not a new solution, but the prioritization is certainly novel.

    I concur completely with your analysis of the Q&A period.

  2. We've had geographic policing in Oakland for many years. Wasserman did not explain how dividing up the City into five areas, rather than three, is really going to make any significant difference. Moreover, Batts abandoned the geographic policing idea for the time he was here because he thought the size of the force was too small to make it work.

    As for the dispatch ideas, I don't see how that's going to make a difference. Most of the time when you call dispatch they don't even send an officer right away, unless it's really a 911 emergency. If they do send an officer, it's because only an officer needs to come (e.g. report of stolen car found). I wish he had given a concrete example of the type of a situation an officer could "resolve" without visiting the scene.

    To me, it clearly sounded like he was trying to justify how much he was being paid by trotting out these "ideas" which are not new.

  3. You keep coming back to lack of originality in his ideas. Again, you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of consultants.

    Often, the best consultants give away all of their ideas for free. In my field of online marketing, there are loads of great ideas all over the Internet. My clients hire me to separate the good from the bad, set priorities, develop timelines, etc. Ideas are cheap, it's implementation that is difficult.

    If Wasserman had trotted out some magic MacGuffin for preventing crime, you would have derided him for not focusing on tried and true strategies.

  4. Okay, then he did a lousy job explaining what his role was, because he was trotting out these ideas as if they were new. He should have acknowledged the likelihood of knowledgeable critics and naysayers like me in the audience, saying, "Look, I know you guys have had community policing since ___ and I know you guys have had Neighborhood Watch since ___, but I can tell it hasn't been maximized because of x y z problems." Instead, he sounded patronizing and ignorant of what's already been tried, albeit perhaps not so successfully.

    He also could have said, "Look, I know you guys really need 1000 officers but I also know that current finances won't allow for more than 700 right now, so here are some strategies that I've seen used in other departments to get more manpower for less money." If he really knows his stuff he'll be able to explain how to negotiate cuts in police salaries, benefits, conduct comparisons of salary/benefit packages with other cities etc. I know this is not easy, but it is not impossible. A good "consultant" would give them strategies on how to get this done. But it is clear he has been told this is a taboo subject (just like stop and frisk, youth curfews, or other strategies that are really specific and do have a proven track record of success).

  5. Daniel, I'd go with my old biz school OB prof's version of the role of organizational type consultants: they are hired by existing power holders to justify a decision or decisions that has already been made.

    We should be so lucky that Mayor Quan has hired Wasserman to recommend replacing Chief Jordan and many other top brass, plus some lower level Sgts. etc.

    Makes me sound like a cranky old man, but until you've heard the same old excuses from the politicians here for at least the last 3 Mayor's, it's easy to believe that you're hearing some creative new idea that might work here.

    And it's often not the idea that's flawed here, but the execution.

  6. Marleen, while I'm a little more optimistic than you, and I'm not as concerned at the lack of new ideas, I am very concerned about the lack of details on execution, as Len mentioned. There was a huge gap between "where we are" and "where we want to be". Lots of talk about involving the community more with the police but few details as to how to change what we have now. I had to laugh when Mayor Quan asked how many of us knew our Problem Solving Officer's phone number. In my district (12X, Temescal), our PSO refuses to give out his phone number because then he'd be "swamped" with calls (don't want that to happen, now do we!). Do Wasserman and Jordan intend that officers like this will have to become more accessible?

    I also had to laugh when Wasserman said the cops will know all the crime data for their district. Our PSO never knows the crime data for our district at the NCPC meetings; it's the volunteer coordinator who knows all that stuff at the top of his head. Do Wasserman and Jordan intend that officers will have to know this stuff? Will they be disciplined if they don't?

    And I'd agree there was a degree of condescension from Wasserman. IMHO the citizens and community of Oakland have done more than their share in trying to maintain this city, and their efforts are frequently appearing to not be matched by the city employees. The seem to spend way too much time on organizing and re-organizing instead of getting actual work done. Check the OPD website and see if any of you can tell me what the top-level geographic structure of the police dept is and who is the captain/chief of the area covering north Oakland. I know who it is just from the NCPC meeting we had in Temescal last month, but you could dig for days on the OPD website and not find out who it is. Who's going to fix the website so it's actually usable? The website seems more interested in conveying the administrative structure of the OPD than in providing actual useful information.

  7. The purpose of hiring Wassermann to hold lots of public meetings has nothing to do with public safety. Measure Y/BB expires next year. Mayor Quan will likely run for re-election on the same November ballot that has an item desperately trying to extend the tax. She wants to make voters think that the City tries to do something about public safety, but she really wants that tax revenue and the grants to her buddies who pay themselves $250,000 a year for running "violence prevention" programs.

    The City could boost the chances of extending the Measure Y taxes. 1) Quan moves on. 2) Make it a real police staffing measure by shrinking the violence prevention part to 10% and eliminating the $4 million off the top that the fire department gets.