High Times for Drug Kingpins 

While talking tough about crime, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has presided over the dismantling of OPD's vice unit and a rise in drug crime.

When you think of Oakland, think of poison. Oaktown is the hub of the East Bay's illegal-drug distribution network, in which criminals smuggle tons of cocaine and heroin each year through the seaport and airport. Almost every one of Oakland's one hundred-plus annual homicides can be traced directly to the drug trade. City Councilmember Larry Reid, who tries to visit the scene of every murder in his district, is so traumatized by the stress that he says he can no longer sleep for more than a few hours; instead, he spends his nights beseeching God to "give me the words to make everyone stop killing." Drug kingpins are rotting the souls of Oakland's poorest neighborhoods.

And Police Chief Richard Word has quietly abolished the one unit responsible for putting them in prison.

The Oakland Police Department's narcotics investigative unit consists of seven plainclothes officers and a sergeant. They conduct covert surveillance, establish a circle of informants, and work their way up the food chain. While the patrol cops bust street-level dealers, who often are young kids or crackheads working for a fix, the narcs go after the mid- to upper-level dealers, who distribute kilos of cocaine and heroin to their underlings. They go after the real bad guys.

At least, they used to. In September 2002, a series of scandals shocked the narcotics investigative unit, the most prominent of which involved two officers who were caught trying to score with some San Leandro hookers. Word, who used to work as a narcotics officer himself, was so incensed that he "temporarily" disbanded the unit until he could clean out the corruption and assign officers of good character. "We had people in that unit who were up to no damn good, and I had to fire them," he says.

Fifteen months later, Oakland still has no narcotics unit -- and no realistic plans to bring it back. Last week, Lieutenant Rick Hart was assigned the task of finally reconstituting the unit, but he says he won't be able to get a team of detectives up and running for at least six months, partly because Word has no plans to assign him new officers. In fact, thanks to budget cuts and the current drug-related homicide epidemic, Hart says he probably won't come close to building another narcotics unit before he retires in a year. It's inconceivable, but true -- the Oakland Police Department does not have a team assembled to catch the drug lords that are destroying this city.

"We don't advertise to them that the unit is down, but it has to be having an impact," Hart says. "It's not only embarrassing, it's frightening for a city of this size, with the crime that we have. All the crime here flows from drugs, whether it's murders over fighting over drug turf, or burglaries committed by people to support drug habits -- everything flows from the narcotics problem. It's beyond my imagination -- we have to staff that section back up again."

In place of the narcotics unit, Chief Word has set up six "crime-reduction teams," which combine street patrols and community policing techniques to focus on problem areas. But this still amounts to street-level policing, not investigative work. The street teams pass on all big narcotics tips to the Alameda County Narcotics Task Force and a second task force run by the Drug Enforcement Administration; it should be noted that seven Oakland cops still do investigative work for these task forces. Word claims that these teams adequately provide the investigative work to chase down the big drug dealers. "I used to be a narc, and I think they do valuable work," he says. "It's good to have that resource at your disposal. But we have that availability with the two task forces."

Unfortunately, Word's own crime statistics tell a different story. According to the police department's Web site, narcotics arrests fell a remarkable 17.7 percent in 2003, the year after he disbanded the narcotics unit. Drug arrests are currently at their lowest level since Mayor Jerry Brown took office, falling from a high of 5,483 in 2000 to last year's low of 3,935. And lest anyone assume that fewer arrests means victory in the war on drugs, Word himself acknowledges that this is not the case: "Our arrests are down. Some of our drug marketers and dealers are very sophisticated, and traditional tactics like buy-bust aren't as useful as other things. You gotta do certain things -- surveillance, informants. But you have to focus on the right areas."


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