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OPD Needs to Start Using Its Lapel Cameras

The portable devices serve as an important check on police misconduct. Plus, Major League Baseball's threat against Oakland and Alameda County works.

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For years, Oakland police officers have contended that most of the misconduct complaints made against them are bogus. As proof, they've pointed to the fact that the police department's Internal Affairs Division has routinely dismissed most citizen complaints as being without merit. Police watchdog groups, in turn, have countered that internal affairs has too often protected cops from being held accountable. So several years ago, OPD adopted a new policy that was designed to settle the dispute once and for all: Uniformed officers would be required to wear small video cameras in order to record interactions with the public. That way, if a citizen complained of mistreatment, there would be an objective record of what happened.

But a recently released report shows that many Oakland police officers are still refusing to wear or turn on their lapel cameras, also known as Portable Digital Recording Devices, or PDRDs. Moreover, the report, produced by court-appointed monitor Robert Warshaw, found that OPD supervisors not only have failed to keep track of which cops aren't using the cameras, but also haven't disciplined officers who don't use them. "We are further troubled that many supervisory personnel routinely address these violations of policy merely as training matters requiring counseling and an entry into officers' Supervisory Notes Files," Warshaw wrote.

Warshaw, a former police chief of Rochester, New York, has repeatedly expressed frustration about Oakland cops not using their PDRDs. He has noted that when they do, there is concrete evidence as to whether a cop has engaged in misconduct. He also has pointed out that camera recordings have exonerated officers accused of wrongdoing. "In several cases, PDRD recordings or recorded telephone conversations directly contradicted statements" made by people alleging misconduct by police officers, he wrote.

So why are many cops still refusing to use the cameras? Jim Chanin — a civil rights attorney who brought the police misconduct lawsuit against OPD ten years ago that resulted in court oversight of the department — said the decision by many cops not to use PDRDs raises serious questions as to whether the officers are acting properly. "It's a giant red flag," he said, adding that he doesn't "see a cultural change" at OPD.

The need to change the department's culture remains a common refrain a decade after court oversight began. In a separate report released last week, OPD consultant Robert Wasserman noted that many Oakland police officers still feel isolated from city residents and "tend to insulate" themselves from the community. Wasserman, a former top official in several police departments nationwide, said OPD needs to develop a "service culture," in which officers work cooperatively with residents. "[O]fficers must treat everyone, even those who are perpetrators of crimes, with respect and dignity," he added. It should be noted that Wasserman also partially blamed the department's siege mentality on outside forces, including protesters who come to Oakland and "attempt to or do incite violence."

But the recent news has not been all bad for OPD. In fact, Warshaw wrote that despite the lapel camera problem, the department has made progress in finally living up to its court-mandated reforms — and found that overall compliance with the reforms "is now at the highest level" since his team first began auditing the department several years ago.

Likewise, OPD Compliance Director Thomas Frazier noted in a new report that the department, under the command of Interim Chief Sean Whent, had made "notable progress" on achieving several benchmarks that Frazier established. "OPD has come a long way in a short period of time," Frazier wrote.

Chanin attributed the improvements to the change in command structure. "I think that Chief Whent is doing a better job than [former Police Chief Howard] Jordan did," Chanin said. Chanin also thinks Whent is "more dedicated" to enacting the court-ordered reforms. But he noted that OPD still has a long way to go. "Oakland residents deserve more than they're getting" from the department, Chanin said.

And a good place to start would be for officers to finally begin using their lapel cameras — and for Chief Whent and his command staff to hold cops accountable when they don't.

The A's Aren't Going to SF

Although Oakland A's co-owner Lew Wolff desperately wants to move the team to San Jose, he also realizes that it would take years before he can build a ballpark there. As a result, he's been trying get a lease extension so the A's can keep playing at the Oakland Coliseum for the time being. Officials with the City of Oakland and Alameda County, who jointly manage the Coliseum, also want the A's to stay. But they want to renegotiate the A's' lease deal so that the team will effectively pay higher rent for using the facility. Debt service payments on the Coliseum are costing East Bay taxpayers about $20 million a year — and so any help from the A's will help the public agencies pay that debt load.

Wolff, however, has refused to pay more. In addition, he wants a short-term, two-year deal so that he can more easily take the team to San Jose if Major League Baseball (MLB) finally agrees to let him do so. As a result, he was at loggerheads with the city and county over the lease extension — until MLB stepped in.

The league decided to threaten Oakland and Alameda County, telling East Bay officials that it would allow the A's to play in San Francisco's AT&T Park next year unless they agreed to a deal that Wolff found suitable. And the threat worked. The Oakland Tribune reported that public officials had decided to back off their demand that the A's pay more and would agree to a shorter deal. The A's, in other words, are not going anywhere — at least for now.

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