Sergeant Donna Hoppenhauer is suddenly way overqualified for her job. For eight years, the diminutive but tough cop has been assigned to what her colleagues call the "Dogwatch." Traditionally, it has been one of the most demanding beats in the East Bay, patrolling the mean streets of East Oakland on weekend nights for twelve hours at a time while working the front lines of the city's effort to curb sideshows -- the roving, often out-of-control parties that snake through eastside neighborhoods, spinning doughnuts and blaring earth-pounding hip-hop.
Over the years, Hoppenhauer has learned the tactical art of breaking up sideshows and peacefully dispersing the hundreds of cars that take over intersections or entire city blocks. The transplanted New Yorker also has developed a knack for engaging motorists in small talk so as to defuse what otherwise might become a tense situation.
But she has little need for such skills these days. The reason? Sideshows appear to be dead -- or at least in a long, sustained slumber.
This surprising turn of events has nothing to do with the highly publicized and hotly debated new city law that Mayor Jerry Brown pushed through the council this summer. In truth, police have yet to employ the mayor's new ordinance, which makes it a crime to be a sideshow spectator.
According to Hoppenhauer and her commander, Lieutenant Dave Downing, who oversees the Dogwatch and all sideshow enforcement activities, there hasn't been a sideshow -- a large gathering of cars and pedestrian spectators -- since the end of April. Isolated small groups of cars still spin doughnuts in East Oakland and elsewhere, but they typically disperse before police arrive.
So what about Brown's public pronouncements in June and July that the city desperately needed his emergency legislation because sideshows had gotten so out of hand? It turns out there was no pressing need for the new law, because OPD had already successfully suppressed the sideshows by more than doubling the number of officers on East Oakland streets.
As the gray Buick weaved through the narrow, treeless streets below Bancroft Avenue in East Oakland, Hoppenhauer stalked from a distance. Her black-and-white patrol car rolled past a seemingly endless row of single-story bungalows that squat behind chain-link and wrought-iron fences. She stayed just far enough behind the Buick to remain unnoticed.
Hoppenhauer first spotted the sedan a few minutes before, while her cruiser idled at the corner of Bancroft and 82nd avenues. The car had turned into the intersection right in front of her, and then as it drove away, the front passenger door swung open and a man stood up and began hanging out of the car.
When the car's front passenger and driver's doors swung open again just before 79th Avenue and Weld Street, Hoppenhauer floored the gas pedal, instantly zooming up behind, lights flashing. It was immediately apparent, however, that this was no sideshow car, and the incident would be far easier to handle than what Hoppenhauer had become used to.
First off, this was no superpowered Mustang 5.0 with an impeccable paint job and shiny chrome-spinning hubcaps. This was a 1980s-era clunker with a cracked windshield, a front fender that was about to fall off, and no hubcaps in sight. And inside, there were four young, well-behaved Latino men. The contrite driver told Hoppenhauer he had bought the Buick for $200 at an auction three days before.
After her backup arrived, Hoppenhauer calmly cited the driver and the front-seat passenger for reckless behavior and the driver for failing to have either a driver's license or vehicle registration. Before she had their Buick towed, Hoppenhauer released the four men and sent them off on foot, allowing them to carry away their car speakers and their unopened twelve-pack of Bud Light.
It was ten minutes to midnight on a recent Saturday and it turned out to be the only incident on Hoppenhauer's 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift that even remotely resembled a sideshow. "Multiply what they were doing by a couple of hundred cars," she remarked a few minutes later as she filled out the city-mandated racial-profiling form, "and that's what we used to face out here."
"Used to" was a phrase Hoppenhauer repeated often during a 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. stint with her. "This is where it used to be just filled with cars," she said as we drove through the intersection of International Boulevard and 98th Avenue. "It would just be packed; they would take over the whole intersection."
Hoppenhauer said the current three-month-plus absence of sideshows is the longest lull she has witnessed in her eight years on Dogwatch. There are still minor remnants of sideshows going on, ten to fifteen cars doing doughnuts in an intersection for a few minutes. But they disperse before police arrive and bear little resemblance to the giant rolling parties back in the day. "Whatever they've done, it's working," said Jean Blacksher, referring to police efforts to quell the sideshows. Blacksher is a longtime Toler Heights neighborhood resident and one of the most outspoken opponents of sideshows in the past decade.
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