Over the years the mainstream press has portrayed Oakland as a city overrun by violent crime with virtually no hope of turning things around. In truth, however, violent crime in the city dropped substantially last year in every major category except robberies. And even robberies decreased during the last three months of the year compared to the same time period in 2012. The most impressive crime statistic in 2013, however, was the city's 28 percent reduction in homicides: There were 36 fewer killings than in 2012, according to the Oakland Police Department's year-end report.
Typically, when crime goes up, the police chief and city leadership get blamed. And when crime goes down, the city's top cop gets praised. As such, it's time to recognize that Interim Police Chief Sean Whent deserves credit for last year's crime reductions. In fact, Mayor Jean Quan would be smart to delay or call off her national search for a new police chief and keep Whent in his job.
The numbers explain why: In 2013, Oakland had 90 homicides compared to 126 the year before, and the city experienced the lowest number of killings overall since 2004. In addition, aggravated assaults dropped by 10 percent last year, while reported rapes went down by a whopping 31 percent.
The only violent crime category that showed an increase in 2013 was robberies, which went up by 15 percent. But as we reported last year, many robberies in Oakland can be attributed to the smartphone theft epidemic that has plagued urban areas throughout the nation. OPD estimated last year that 75 percent of robberies in the city involved a cellphone. Still, things were looking better in this category as 2013 came to a close. During the last three months of the year, robberies dropped by 10 percent — 118 fewer robberies — compared to the same three months in 2012. Even burglaries went down in 2013, dropping 7 percent overall compared to the previous year, while residential burglaries plummeted 18 percent.
Along with the positive crime numbers, OPD also has made progress on its court-mandated reforms for the first time in the past several years, thanks to Whent. By all indications, he also enjoys the support of Independent Court Monitor Robert Warshaw and court-appointed Compliance Director Thomas Frazier — two respected former police chiefs from major cities. Whent, Warshaw, and Frazier are also staunch backers of constitutional policing practices whereby police departments treat citizens with respect and avoid tactics that lead to racial profiling and use of force. Indeed, it's hard to imagine Frazier giving his blessing to replace Whent.
At the same time, Quan's national search for a new police chief suffered a temporary setback last week when the city's headhunter, Bob Murray, quit. Murray was reportedly upset that Quan's chief of staff, Anne Campbell Washington, had spoken to one of the potential candidates.
Murray's resignation was curious, however, because Campbell Washington, who also serves on the Oakland school board, appears to have done nothing wrong. She talked to the potential candidate before the city's application deadline at the candidate's request. The candidate wanted to know whether Oakland was conducting a true search — or whether it was just for show and that Whent was going to get the job. Campbell Washington urged the candidate to apply for the position because the search was real. In other words, it appears that Murray's complaints were unfounded — and a bit strange.
Moreover, the city is better off without him. In recent months, Murray had developed a professional relationship with City Administrator Deanna Santana that raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest. He seemed to acknowledge this fact when he stated in his resignation letter to Santana that he was also upset because his "integrity has been questioned" by some Oakland officials. Murray, it turns out, was running the search for the Dallas city manager job and had recommended Santana for that position after Santana had hired him to run Oakland's police chief search. Santana is now one of the finalists in Dallas.
It's also unclear whether Murray disclosed to Oakland police chief candidates that he was helping their potential direct supervisor — Santana — leave the city. Scoring the Dallas job for Santana could benefit Murray in the future if she were to hire him to conduct other headhunting searches to create her own management team. Murray did not return a phone call seeking comment for this column.
Santana, meanwhile, told the Oakland Tribune that Oakland's search for a permanent police chief would be delayed because Murray left before fully vetting all the potential candidates. But a delay now — considering the fact that Oakland already has a capable chief — is not a bad thing. It also makes sense for Quan to wait until Santana leaves so she can hire her replacement before bringing on a new chief.
Don't be surprised, however, if the Oakland police officers' union pushes hard for a new top cop right away. Many veteran rank-and-file officers don't like Whent because he used to run the department's internal affairs division. As a result, he knows which cops are dirty.
And while that may make him unpopular within certain elements of OPD, Whent knows first-hand which cops have been blocking the department from making good on the court-mandated reforms on police misconduct. As such, he may provide the city with its best hope of finally cleaning house at OPD, and helping the department emerge from court oversight.
Plus, the chief doesn't deserve to be replaced when crime is going down.