Reinventing the Wheel 

Oakland police previously dismantled the very system the chief now sells as a crime solution.

Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker wants it both ways. He plans to use a recent study of his department as a blueprint for stanching the city's dramatic spike in crime. But he refuses to acknowledge that the police department may have made a serious error several years ago when it had a similar blueprint in place but abandoned it under pressure from ex-Mayor Jerry Brown — a move that appears to have contributed to last year's bloody crime wave.

The blueprint Tucker is now embracing, Crime Fighting in Oakland, was commissioned by Brown and completed in late December just before he left office. The lead author of the report, Patrick Harnett, is a former high-ranking member of the New York City Police Department. Harnett recommends that Oakland copy the NYPD, which he said has experienced a 70 percent drop in crime since it adopted an "area command" system in the 1990s. Under area command, the city is divided into separate districts run by police captains who are personally responsible for lowering crime in their sectors.

In a 45-minute sit-down interview last week, Tucker said that installing Harnett's plan is his top priority this year. Harnett believes that Oakland's crime problems will ease once the department's top brass — area commanders — are held accountable. The current system is failing, Harnett said, because there is no accountability.

Harnett also recommends that Tucker redeploy his force to concentrate more on investigating and solving crimes. "Investigative work, the search for and arrest of perpetrators of past crimes, is also one of the most effective ways to prevent future crimes," Harnett wrote in his report.

Currently, the department's investigative unit is incapable of solving most crimes because it's simply overwhelmed, Harnett said. For example, Oakland had only ten homicide investigators to deal with 148 killings last year, seven robbery investigators who carried a caseload of more than 3,600 robberies, and just one auto theft investigator to investigate more than 7,500 stolen cars.

Things are so bad, Harnett noted, that the department attempts to solve only the open-and-shut cases. Forget what you see on television; these investigators are just too busy for old-fashioned detective work. "The lieutenants who manage the department's investigative units are forced to triage cases, assigning for investigation only those cases that present a very strong probability of being solved," he wrote.

The results are predictable. Stats from the state Department of Justice show that Oakland's violent criminals are rarely apprehended anymore. The department's record of solving crime has steadily declined since 2001. That year, police solved 40 percent of all violent crimes, including homicides. But by 2005, the latest year for which complete data is available, Oakland solved only 21.7 percent.

In other words, eight out of every ten violent felony perpetrators get away with it. Who says crime doesn't pay?

Harnett said it's likely that only a relatively small number of people are behind the crime wave. "The fact that Oakland had more than 3,600 robberies in 2006 does not mean that the city has 3,600 robbers," he wrote. "The number of active robbers is probably no more than a couple of hundred and may be substantially less than that."

But if those criminals aren't caught, they tend to commit more crimes, causing the crime rate to spiral out of control, Harnett noted in his report. It's no wonder, then, that Oakland's crime rate has skyrocketed. The police department doesn't arrest as many criminals as it used to.

So how did this happen? Harnett didn't address the issue in his report, and he declined to answer questions for this story. Could it be that Oakland police already had an area command system in place — but jettisoned it?

According to ex-Police Chief Richard Word, former Chief Joseph Samuels instituted area command in Oakland in 1996. One of his first moves was to install a young captain, Word, as area commander of East Oakland. It could be just a coincidence, but Samuel's area command system was followed by a significant drop in crime and a staggering increase in the number of crimes solved. From 1996 through 1999, violent crime fell 30 percent citywide. And according to the state data, the number of violent crimes solved during the same period jumped a whopping 213 percent.

Yet that wasn't good enough for Brown. At the time, crime was declining nationwide, and Oakland's crime problem was still worse than that of other large cities. But its solve rate was phenomenal, which is arguably the more important stat because solved crimes get the bad guys off the street. Nonetheless, Brown fired Samuels in March 1999 and promoted Word a few months later to take his place.

This is where the story gets murky: No one seems to know when the department dismantled Samuels' system. Tucker's spokesman, Officer Roland Holmgren, said that it was 1999 or 2000. Word, who is now the Vacaville police chief, put the date in 2001 or 2002. But current Oakland Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Israel claimed it was 2003 or 2004. Interesting ... the department can't remember when it killed a crimefighting plan that it now champions as a panacea.

Word said last week that over time he realized area command is the "ideal model," but he said he chose to move away from it several years ago because at the time he was looking for ways to be more "efficient" so he could lower crime further. "It was an evolutionary process," he said. "I was looking for what would work in Oakland."

Word and his top staff created a complicated hybrid plan that mixed area command and a system called "watch command," in which three commanders work successive eight-hour shifts at the department's downtown headquarters and control the officers who patrol the entire city. Word's system still had area commanders, but they were lieutenants who lack authority and don't coordinate effectively with the watch commanders. Harnett said flatly in his report that neither this hybrid nor a true watch command system works well.

When asked whether Brown or anyone else in City Hall specifically ordered him to adopt the hybrid system, Word said no, but he acknowledged that City Hall had been putting pressure on the department to decrease crime. In other words, an inexperienced young chief was pushed to make a change for change's sake.

So, let's review: Brown, who as attorney general is now considered the state's "top cop," started his term as mayor of Oakland by firing the cop who installed area command. He then pressured his new chief, who responded by adopting an unproven crime-fighting plan. This was followed by a huge drop in the number of crimes solved, and a predictable — and possibly preventable — crime wave. Finally, Brown ended his eight years in office by spending $50,000 on a nationally regarded expert who says area command was the answer all along.

Stay with me, because it gets better. Brown's last police chief, Tucker, who replaced Word and now has been embraced by Mayor Ron Dellums, refuses to acknowledge any of this. "I don't think the increase in crime can be attributed to the watch command system," he said of Word's hybrid. "I think the increase in crime is a complicated problem."

That may very well be, but it doesn't negate the fact that Tucker has staked out an inherently contradictory position that would make even Vice President Dick Cheney smile: Oakland's police chief believes instituting area command is the best way to stem the bloodshed in the city, but he claims that abandoning area command in the first place could not have been a cause of it.

Sorry, chief, you can't have it both ways. Either area command stops the killing, or it doesn't.

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