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Howard Jordan Was Never the Right Choice

The former Oakland police chief was too much of an insider to turn around OPD, but his replacement, interim Chief Sean Whent, appears to be a smart pick.

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In the aftermath of Howard Jordan's abrupt retirement last week, there was much debate over whether Oakland's police chief quit because of a medical condition, as he claimed, or because OPD's new compliance director, Thomas Frazier, was about to seek his ouster, as the Oakland Tribune later reported. But lost in the discussion was the fact that Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana should never have made Jordan police chief in the first place.

Quan and Santana appointed Jordan to take over for Anthony Batts after Batts resigned in October 2011, just days after a scathing report by court-appointed monitor Robert Warshaw criticized Batts' leadership and the department's failure to live up to court-mandated reforms. Quan had grown enamored with Jordan's abilities when she was an Oakland school board member eleven years ago and he was head of the school district's police force. She also noted in 2011 that Jordan, as assistant chief under Batts, was intimately aware of the federal consent decree that governs OPD.

But while Jordan is a good guy and was a good cop, he was too much of an insider to be a successful chief. During his 25-year career, he rose through the ranks by forging close relationships with many people inside OPD, and as a result, was unable — and perhaps unwilling — to effectively deal with the department's two major failings: its inability to cope with police misconduct and its failure to solve crimes, thereby making Oakland's crime problems worse.

Whether as a police commander or as chief, Jordan never fully embraced the consent decree, which the city had agreed to implement following The Riders scandal a decade ago. Jordan treated the reforms more as a list of things to do, rather than as best practices that could actually help OPD become an effective police force. He didn't seem to grasp the fact that if cops repeatedly stop and harass people — or worse, point their guns at them — because of the color of their skin, then large segments of Oakland's population would refuse to work cooperatively with police to help solve crimes.

Jordan's shortcomings were obvious to Frazier, the former police commissioner of Baltimore and longtime veteran of San Jose PD. In the past year, Frazier issued two searing reports about OPD's command staff, haranguing the department for failing to properly investigate police misconduct and hold cops accountable for their actions, especially involving the Occupy Oakland protests.

As such, it was no surprise that Frazier was planning to ask federal Judge Thelton Henderson to fire Jordan, as the Tribune reported over the weekend, citing anonymous sources. It's also no surprise that Quan told me in an interview late last week that Frazier had signed off on the decision by her and Santana to appoint Deputy Chief Sean Whent to take over as interim chief, following Jordan's sudden departure. Whent actually replaced Acting Chief Anthony Toribio, who, like Jordan, was not well-suited for the position and held it for just two days.

Over the past several years, Whent has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the few commanders in OPD to be openly critical of the department's Internal Affairs Division (IAD) and its failure to get rid of bad cops. In a sworn deposition last year stemming from the federal consent decree, Frazier singled out Whent for his candor about OPD and the culture within IAD that protects its own. "IAD officials do not want to be the individual who sustains a complaint against a particular [officer]," Frazier quoted Whent as telling his team. "I have little faith that IA can get it right ...."

In his deposition, Frazier also noted that Danielle Outlaw, whom Whent named to be acting deputy chief in charge of internal affairs, had been open about OPD's shortcomings, too.

In an interview, Jim Chanin, an Oakland civil rights attorney who is part of the oversight process of OPD, said he was pleased about the selection of both Whent and Outlaw as well. "He's the best choice," Chanin said of Whent. "I think he's an honest person." Of Outlaw, Chanin said, "I'm very impressed with her; I think she's also a straight-shooter. My impression is that she's not afraid to make tough choices."

Over the years, Whent also has criticized OPD's Criminal Investigations Division, which has one of the worst records in the nation for solving crimes. In 2009, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Whent had contended that then-Sergeant Derwin Longmire purposely botched the investigation into the murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey because of Longmire's longtime relationship with Yusuf Bey IV, the man who ordered Bailey's assassination. However, Jordan, who was acting police chief at the time, decided to clear Longmire of wrongdoing.

Whent's criticisms of the department's criminal investigations were echoed last week by the team of consultants led by William Bratton — the former head of the New York and Los Angeles police departments — that is working with OPD. The Bratton Group also was critical of OPD's failure to direct adequate resources toward criminal investigations.

As a result, Whent appears to be the right choice to lead OPD — at least for now. The question for Whent, however, is whether he will be able to translate his clear understanding of OPD's problems into actual solutions. He surely will encounter deep resistance from leaders of the Oakland police union, who have long viewed the consent decree as a hindrance to crime fighting and had grown to dislike Jordan because they saw him as being too tough on cops — rather than not tough enough.

Still, Chanin expressed hope that Whent and Outlaw can finally lead the department into compliance with court-mandated reforms after ten years of failure. "Now we're going to find out if there's any hope at all," he said.

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