Oakland Police Consider Less Intrusive Search Policy 

Most people on probation and parole have no Fourth Amendment rights, but the Oakland police say they want to reduce routine warrantless searches.

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Officer Joseph Turner, the main author of the department's revised policy, described how a probation or parole search figures into the new intelligence-based policing strategy. As an example, he told the police commission that if there was an uptick in armed robberies in a particular area, the department might look to see if anyone convicted of the same type of crime was recently released from prison or placed on parole in that neighborhood. If the person matches a physical description of the suspect, the police might find them and conduct a warrantless search.

But if someone who happens to be on probation for a non-violent crime is pulled over for a traffic infraction, the department's new policy doesn't necessarily require a search be conducted.

"Just because you happen to be on probation or parole doesn't mean you have a connection to criminal activity," said Turner at the police commission hearing.

Still, many are hesitant to call the police department's changing approach progress.

"It's disingenuous," said John Jones III.

Jones, a formerly incarcerated Oakland resident who has become a leader on criminal justice issues, said the real problem begins with the disproportionate number of Black people stopped by the police in Oakland.

Many stops are initiated before an officer knows the identity of a person, let alone their probation or parole status. And the majority of stops are of Black and Latinx people.

"I've been pulled over while I was on paper and while I was not on paper, and they asked the question each time," said Jones, who is Black and grew up in East Oakland.

Jones said the revised probation and parole search policy will do little to address what he called the "primary problem" with the police department's relationship to the community.

According to stop data maintained by OPD, 62 percent of all people stopped by the police are Black, even though Oakland's Black population is only 24 percent of the city's total.

Detailed analyses conducted by Stanford researcher Jennifer Eberhardt has shown that racial bias is one underlying reason why so many Black people are stopped. Furthermore, the Stanford team has also revealed how a person's race influences the way a police officer interacts with them.

For example, the Stanford team found that the police tend to use more "severe" legal language when talking to Black people, and that officers frequently inquire about Black people's probation and parole status.

Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center, said he also doesn't think the new policy is a major departure from the past.

"We still are going to have a policy that allows for a lot of discretion by officers," said Norris. "We have a police department that has a long history of abuse and racial profiling. So much more is needed from the police department's top brass to ensure that abuse and harassment ends."

Norris said a real reform would actually do away with searches of probationers and parolees simply because of their status. Instead, Norris said a search should only be conducted when an officer has reason to believe the person is involved in a crime.

Several members of Oakland's police commission agree with Norris and want to see the new policy go further.

However it's changed, any tweak to OPD's probation and parole search policy will mainly impact Black and Latinx people. Black people account for a grossly disproportionate number of the total population on probation in Alameda County: While only 11 percent of the county population is Black, 47 percent of all the adults on probation last year were Black, or about 4,249 individuals. For juveniles, the disparity is even more extreme, with Black boys and girls accounting for 67 percent of the youth probation population, or 972 individuals. The over-representation of Black people in the probation system reflects broader racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Maureen Benson, an alternate member of Oakland's police commission, said that another reason to reduce the discretion of officers to search people simply because of their probation status has to do with these systemic inequalities. Many people take plea deals that include probation, even when they're innocent, simply because they are too poor to afford bail and an attorney to fight their case.

While Benson praised OPD's willingness to reform some of their most fundamental policies, she also said the department should do more to incorporate feedback from the people most affected. This includes cops, but people on probation and parole should also be consulted about how the police can reduce racial profiling and unnecessary and intrusive searches.

Birch told the Express that the policy is a work in progress, and that it must go to a meet and confer process with the Oakland Police Officers' Association union before it's published in a training bulletin and put into practice.

For Williams, it's a step in the right direction, even if it's a small step.

"This is one way for the police to improve their relationship with the community, by not treating someone like a suspect just because they had a conviction years ago and came home on probation or parole," he said. "I think that will mean a lot to a lot of people.

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