Gary King Jr.; Andrew Moppin-Buckskin; Mack "Jody" Woodfox; Derrick Jones. These Oakland residents all were shot and killed by Oakland Police Department officers in recent years. The fatal shootings all appeared to be the result of poorly trained cops overestimating the dangers of a situation.
But the department, under the command of Police Chief Anthony Batts, has successfully lessened the number of officer-involved shootings since 2008 by intensifying training and attempting to change OPD's sometimes confrontational and opaque culture. New statistics show that the number of shootings declined in the second-half of the past decade, from a high of eleven in 2007 to five last year. Also, fatal shootings by officers peaked at six in 2008, and then dropped to three in 2010. Both 2007 and 2008 were the worst for the department in recent years.
Oakland Police Assistant Chief Howard Jordan said that annual firearms training under Batts increased from four to twelve hours; the department added four hours to professional training every eighteen months; and an outside consulting firm is conducting community policing training to raise cultural awareness. "We don't train offers to overreact," Jordan said. "We train them to access danger and react to the threat."
John Burris, an Oakland civil rights attorney who has represented many families of shooting victims, said cultural awareness is important for officers, especially when they're not familiar with some areas of the city. Police shootings tend to be case specific, Burris said, but generally he sees young, inexperienced officers overreacting to a situation by misinterpreting a person's movements due to a lack of training or cultural understanding. "If you're not around it or grew up in it," Burris said of Oakland, "you don't understand the people."
Rashidah Grinage, executive director of the police watchdog group People United for a Better Life in Oakland, also known as PUEBLO, views officer-involved shootings through a different lens. She sees a departmental culture that is violent and is shielded by laws that allow cops to avoid penalty or public scrutiny when they fire their guns. "They are basically allowed to draw their weapon if there is any chance that they are going to be injured or killed," said Grinage, a frequent critic of OPD conduct. "I don't really see that an officer is going to give anyone a benefit of the doubt. They're literally paranoid, and protective in that paranoia."
Paranoia and overreaction appears to have been the root cause for several fatal incidents in 2007 and 2008, involving so-called "waistband shootings" — shootings where an officer claims a suspect was reaching for his waist, presumably to grab a weapon, when in fact he had none. The shootings were a black eye for the department and resulted in huge legal costs for the city.
One of the most egregious of these incidents took place in July 2008, after a traffic stop by rookie Officer Hector Jimenez. Mack "Jody" Woodfox exited his vehicle and started to run away when Jimenez shot him to death, claiming he had reached for his waistband. Of all the cases he has worked, Burris said he is still infuriated by what happened. He noted that six months earlier, Jimenez had shot and killed unarmed Andrew Moppin-Buckskin in yet another waistband shooting. The department ultimately fired Jimenez in one of the few publicized instances of disciplinary action against an officer for a fatal shooting. "That was one of the few times that I've seen progressive action by a department," Burris said. "I feel [Jimenez] should have been criminally prosecuted."
Yet even with the new training regimen, waistband shootings haven't gone away. In November 2010, officers responding to a domestic violence call in East Oakland shot and killed 37-yearold Derrick Jones after he ran away from police, and then allegedly reached for his waistbandled him. He was unarmed. Investigators discovered he was carrying a small scale used to weigh marijuana.
Still, the department has taken a number of steps in recent years to improve transparency. It made public a report commissioned to investigate the Lovelle Mixon shooting incident even though it was damning. In the past, such reports, if commissioned at all, usually remained confidential. Jordan is aware of the skepticism that can course through a community after an officer-involved shooting and views transparency as part of the solution. He also made it clear that the department takes investigating officer-involved shootings seriously. "Bottom line," he said, "that's the only way we're going to gain the public's trust."
Nonetheless, how the department handles individual officers who shoot and kill unarmed citizens remains shrouded. The reason is Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court, a 2006 California Supreme Court case that ruled that disciplinary actions against an officer are confidential.
Oakland residents can file a complaint of alleged wrongdoing by an officer to the Citizens Police Review Board, which will investigate its veracity. But its records also are not entirely public. And even though the board has the power to subpoena officers and compel interviews, Grinage said what's lacking is an independent entity, such as a police commission similar to San Francisco's, with the power to discipline officers — even if it's behind closed doors. Until such an entity arises, Grinage argued that there will be no real sea change in OPD's culture. "Frankly," she said, "they're going to have to be forced into" changing.
For his part, Burris believes the department has been making progress over the years, albeit slowly. He points to the Riders settlement as a source of optimism — among other reforms. However, the department has failed to fully implement all the Riders reforms and federal Judge Thelton Henderson threatened last fall to seize control of OPD. The reforms also don't specifically target issues inherent with police shootings: training and cultural awareness. "The culture of the department is one that is very difficult to change," Burris noted.