For anyone who has closely followed local news during the past decade, it's no secret that Oakland's police department is one of the worst in the nation. Late last year, the deeply dysfunctional agency narrowly avoided becoming the first in the country to be taken over by the federal government for its repeated failure to safeguard the civil rights of city residents. Earlier this week, a court-appointed overseer took effective control of OPD in an effort to finally reform it. And while the choice of this new so-called compliance director, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, appears to have been smart, recent news that OPD had targeted at least three innocent men — helping imprison two of them for long stretches — raises further doubts as to whether the department's many problems can ever be fixed.
Of the two most recent revelations, which came to light earlier this week, one showed that Oakland police put a San Leandro accountant on its Most Wanted list for much of last year even though the department had obtained no warrant for his arrest and he appears to have been totally innocent. The accountant, Chau Van, noted in his lawsuit against OPD that he had showed up at police headquarters in February 2012 after learning from a friend that KTVU-TV had broadcast a report, stating that police considered him to be a dangerous criminal. OPD then held him for three days without charges and released him.
Police Chief Howard Jordan's media relations office then issued a press release entitled "Most Wanted Turns Himself In." The release quoted Jordan as saying, "A week ago I stood with community members and asked the community to stand with me to fight crime and today we have one less criminal on our streets. Today a victim is one step closer to justice." The press release went on to describe "Chau" (it transposed his first and last names) as "the person responsible" for a December 9, 2011 assault that left a victim with serious head injuries.
And even though the department had released Van and had no arrest warrant for him, it kept him on its Most Wanted list until one of his attorneys, John Burris, sent the department a letter in August of 2012. The department has yet to apologize.
In the other case, the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University law school proved that 38-year-old Johnny Williams of Oakland had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for fourteen years for the sexual assault of a young girl in the 1990s, the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle reported. Williams was forced to serve his full term in prison and wasn't officially exonerated by the courts until last week — two months after he had been paroled. The Innocence Project proved through DNA testing that Williams was innocent.
Williams was the second innocent man from Oakland exonerated in as many months thanks to the work of the Innocence Project. In February, Ronald Ross, 51, was released from custody after spending seven years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Like Williams, Ross was convicted as the result of shoddy investigative work by OPD.
In fact, in all three of the above cases, OPD appears to have wrongly targeted innocent men as the result of the department's poor investigative practices and its overreliance on witness identifications. In each of the cases, the only evidence that OPD reportedly had was witness IDs. As the Express reported last fall, that's not uncommon in Oakland. Interviews and public records show that OPD routinely fails to collect and analyze forensic evidence at crime scenes and instead depends almost exclusively on witness testimony to make arrests and obtain convictions — even though numerous studies have shown over the years that witness IDs are among the least reliable forms of evidence (see "Getting Away with Murder," 11/14/12). The lack of proper investigative techniques is also why OPD has one of the worst records in the nation for solving violent crimes. In 2011, it solved just 29 percent of the homicides in the city. Statewide, the average solve-rate for homicides is 64 percent.
OPD's inability to solve crimes, in turn, contributes to the city's high crime rate, because criminals have little fear of getting caught and are free to commit even more crimes. Part of the problem is that OPD is understaffed. However, the cash-strapped city doesn't have the funds to quickly beef up the size of the force. Either way, OPD has failed over the years to address its investigative failures, and instead has concentrated on patrolling streets in the hopes that people won't commit crimes if they see a police officer pulling someone over for a minor traffic violation. Predictably, crime has remained at very high levels.
At the same time, OPD has repeatedly failed to live up to the court-mandated reforms from the infamous Riders scandal. Fortunately, federal Judge Thelton Henderson appears to have made a wise choice in selecting Frazier to oversee OPD. According to the Tribune, Frazier is a strong advocate of community policing strategies and has a reputation for eschewing "zero-tolerance" policing and downplaying the importance of enforcing minor crimes, including drug offenses. He's been described as "a social worker with a gun."
Frazier also is well aware of OPD's investigative shortcomings. In a hard-hitting report released last June, Frazier noted that OPD doesn't investigate officer misconduct either (see "Damning Report of OPD," 6/20/12). As compliance director, Frazier will make the department's compliance to the federal consent decree his primary responsibility. If successful, it will represent a major accomplishment for the city's police force. But unless Frazier can also dramatically improve the department's investigative abilities, Oakland likely will continue to be plagued by violent crime — and police will wrongfully target more innocent people.