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Why Witnesses Won't Talk to Oakland Police

A new report on police use of firearms may shed light on why this phenomenon exists among black and Latino crime victims and witnesses in Oakland.

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During the past decade, the Oakland Police Department's record for solving violent crimes has been among the worst in California. Criminals routinely get away with raping, assaulting, and murdering people in the city. Part of the problem is that the department has failed over the years to emphasize the importance of investigating and solving crimes, and instead has concentrated on patrolling "hot-spots" in an attempt to suppress crime before it happens. But there's also been the problem of witnesses and victims refusing to cooperate with police — particularly if they're black or Latino.

But then something remarkable happened last week. Numerous witnesses decided to come forward and break the code of silence. Suddenly armed with tips and leads, police were able to quickly arrest an alleged gang member in what was surely one of the most tragic killings in Oakland history: A three-year-old boy was killed in broad-daylight when a gunman sprayed bullets at rival gang members on International Boulevard. The killing of little Carlos Fernando Nava obviously struck an immediate chord. "People are so outraged, they are not worried about anything except giving information to us," Oakland police spokeswoman Holly Joshi told the Oakland Tribune.

In a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, former Tribune columnist Brenda Payton wondered whether the quick resolution of the Nava killing was a harbinger of change. "Perhaps the fatal shooting of a toddler will be the breaking point that ends a code of silence that often frustrates police investigations," Payton wrote. She noted that such a change could finally help lower Oakland's high crime rate, because with more witnesses coming forward, "police investigators are likely to solve more crimes, not only arresting murder suspects, but apprehending other suspects in other crimes thereby preventing additional violence."

Over the years, there have been lots of reasons proffered for why people of color in crime-ridden communities refuse to talk to the cops. Fear of retaliation from criminals often tops the list. There's also the street culture of "no snitching" in which the most egregious offense is "ratting out" someone. But while such explanations have validity, they have failed to explain why Oakland's crime-solving woes are worse than other urban areas with the same issues. Fears of reprisal and the refusal to "snitch," after all, are not limited to Oakland.

But then earlier this month, a report from experienced cops who are monitoring Oakland police uncovered another possible reason for the code of silence here — and it's a problem that even an event like the killing of a three-year-old boy may have difficulty overcoming.

The report was conducted by the court-appointed monitors in the infamous Riders police misconduct case. The monitors, mostly retired police chiefs and other top ex-law enforcement officers from around the nation, had started to notice that Oakland cops seem to draw and point their guns at people — a lot. And so the monitoring team decided to examine whether police were justified in doing so. And what they found was troubling.

As first reported by KALW radio and then in a more in-depth follow-up by the Trib, the monitors analyzed 80 events in which 215 officers drew down on people. They found that in 28 percent of the instances, Oakland cops had no legitimate reason for drawing and pointing their guns. The monitors also tabulated the racial breakdown of who was having guns pointed at them and discovered that 78 percent were black and 17 percent were Latino.

The monitoring team also went out of their way to be fair to police, noting that "in each instance where there was a question as to whether an officer's action was appropriate, we gave any benefit of doubt to the involved officers" and determined that their decision to draw and point their guns had been legitimate. For example, if a cop believed he was dealing with someone who stole a car, then the monitors determined that it was okay to draw and point a firearm. And yet even with these caveats, the monitors found:

"Officers frequently presumed — often with no basis — that whomever they were contacting was armed. In many situations, the subjects turned out to be unarmed; sometimes officers pointed their firearms at victims and witnesses;

"In some cases, officers pointed their firearms simply to gain compliance" from a suspect;

"In a few instances, it seemed that the only offense that a subject 'committed' was running from the police. While it is reasonable to assume that someone may be running because s/he is wanted or guilty of an offense, running is not, in and of itself, against the law; and does not serve as justification for pointing a firearm."

Oakland police have had a long troubled history of shooting unarmed suspects, particularly young black men. But it remains to be seen whether Police Chief Anthony Batts will reform the department's protocol for drawing and pointing weapons. If he doesn't, the implication for crime-solving is clear: Many blacks and Latinos are going to be less likely to talk to police during criminal investigations, noted longtime East Bay civil rights attorney Jim Chanin.

"We all know that it's dangerous for police out there, and we don't want to do anything to jeopardize officer safety," Chanin told the Trib. "On the other hand, if you are doing nothing and you have a gun pointed at you by a police officer, it leaves an indelible impression and can alienate someone from the police forever, particularly if they're a minority. ... Then you want them to be a witness in a crime, or cooperate with police, and all they remember is having a gun pointed at them."

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