For decades, the Oakland Police Department had a reputation for being one of the most brutal law enforcement agencies in the state, in terms of its treatment of political protesters. That reputation was solidified after OPD's harsh crackdown on Occupy Oakland demonstrators in 2011 and 2012 forced the city to pay out millions of dollars in police misconduct settlements. But the recent, almost-nightly demonstrations in Oakland against police killings in Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri have revealed that OPD has made significant strides in its handling of protests, and no longer deserves the reputation it once had. In fact, OPD has become more effective in dealing with mass demonstrations, and is doing a much better job than the Berkeley Police Department and the California Highway Patrol.
In an interview, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said the department has been dedicated to correcting its mistakes. "We've obviously learned the hard way how not to do it," he said. "We've put in a lot of training ... since Occupy."
Some civil rights advocates agree with Whent's assessment. "I think they're doing a really good job," said Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney who has kept close tabs on OPD over the years. "It's clearly an improved department since Occupy."
Chanin, however, added that his assessment of OPD was based on his assumption that department officials did not know that armed CHP officers had dressed up last week as masked protesters and infiltrated a demonstration in an incident in which one of them pointed a gun at demonstrators and journalists. Chanin said that if OPD officials were aware of what the CHP was doing at the time, then they would have been in violation of city regulations. Whent declined to comment on the CHP's actions.
So if OPD is no longer the worst, which department is? Chanin had some strong words for the CHP, but added, "I think the worst has been Berkeley — the over-the-head baton strikes, the attacks on journalists ... the firing of tear gas and less-than-lethal weapons into the crowd."
Chanin was referring to Berkeley PD's over-the-top response to a large anti-police-brutality protest on Saturday, December 6. After a small group of protesters vandalized some Berkeley businesses, police unleashed volleys of tear gas at the entire demonstration. In addition, police injured at least three journalists, struck protesters with their batons, and fired less-than-lethal weapons into crowds of protesters — a highly dangerous practice.
In response, the Berkeley Police Review Commission voted last week to ask the Berkeley City Council to restrict the use of tear gas, over-the-shoulder baton strikes, and the firing of projectiles, Berkeleyside reported. In addition, the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to Mayor Tom Bates, raising strong concerns about the attacks on members of the news media. Last week, Bates and other city leaders directed BPD to tone down its response to protests after the December 6 melee. "We shouldn't use tear gas unless it's absolutely a last resort," Bates told me.
But Bates also argued that BPD "got overwhelmed" on December 6, and was not prepared to deal with militant protesters who were bent on vandalizing and looting. And he contended that officers didn't start firing tear gas and projectiles until some demonstrators had begun to hurl rocks and other things at them. "We were sort of shocked," the mayor said. "It was different from what we had ever experienced before." Bates also argued that Berkeley police has improved its handling of protests after December 6.
While some Berkeley leaders have begrudgingly acknowledged that BPD overreacted on December 6, CHP officials have staunchly maintained that their officers did nothing wrong — despite the strong criticism that the agency has received.
Until last week, CHP officers had mostly showed restraint in dealing with protesters who shuttered local freeways. But that changed on the night of Tuesday, December 9, when protesters scrambled up an embankment and onto Highway 24 in Oakland. CHP officers used batons, flash-bang grenades, and pepper spray to force protesters off the freeway. CHP officers also pepper-sprayed one photojournalist in the eyes and smashed another's camera. Then, as protesters retreated back down to 40th Street, two CHP officers, standing above on the freeway overpass, began firing less-than-lethal rounds at the crowd of demonstrators below, striking one person in the head and another in the foot.
Then, the next night, an undercover CHP officer made national headlines when he pointed his loaded handgun directly at photojournalists and protesters. The officer and his partner had donned masks and joined a protest in Oakland before one of them had his mask removed by a protester while being punched. Afterward, Avery Browne, chief of the CHP's Golden Gate Division, strongly defended the CHP officers, telling reporters that they had been "under attack."
Whent declined to talk about the actions of other police departments (OPD must maintain good working relationships with other law enforcement agencies because they rely on each other for mutual aid). But he indicated that OPD handles such undercover operations differently. His undercover officers, he said, do not attempt to make arrests during protests.
Based on what we've seen in the past few weeks, it's clear that both Berkeley PD and CHP could learn some lessons from Oakland police. And they can all learn from Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, who showed last week that he clearly gets it. Magnus made national news when he decided to hold a "#BlackLivesMatter" sign during a protest in an effort that he said was designed to "build bridges" with communities of color. Although the Richmond police union has strongly criticized Magnus for his move, he told both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times that he would to do it again.