Archive for March, 2010

Dumpster Diver

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Midnight snacks are served seven nights a week here at Chez Fragève…

Snacktime

Good News: Endangering Pedestrians Really Is Illegal in Oakland

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I complain occasionally (okay, all the time) about how dangerous our streets are for pedestrians, and how I wish that the Oakland Police Department would crack down on reckless drivers so that people can feel safe crossing the street. So you can imagine how pleased I was to read about a string operation in West Oakland this morning, in which 25 drivers were cited for failing to stop for an OPD staffer as she tried to cross a crosswalk:

Twenty-five motorists were cited this morning in a West Oakland police sting for not yielding to pedestrians crossing the street.

The operation, which went from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Brockhurst Street, was done in response to residents’ complaints about pedestrian safety, Officer Holly Joshi said.

While motorcycle officers observed from a distance, a civilian employee of the Police Department would walk in the marked crosswalk at the intersection. Motorists who failed to stop for her were stopped by officers and given a citation.

Joshi said that there were a few close calls for the decoy from some of the cars that did not stop but that she was not hurt.

Kudos to OPD. Now if we could get them to start citing reckless drivers as a matter of habit, then we’d be making real progress. I’m happy to report that even on that front I witnessed a promising event the other day. I arrived at a 4-way stop on my bike just before an Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy reached the intersection from another direction. After doing a quick computation of our respective masses and acceleration capabilities, I decided to wait for him to proceed, but he waved me ahead of him. That was refreshing enough, but what happened next was nothing short of miraculous: He turned onto my street, and we were waiting side by side at the next red light when an SUV sped through the intersection on the cross street, probably going about 40 mph in a 30 mph zone—definitely speeding somewhat dangerously, but nothing out of the ordinary on the streets of Oakland, and he hadn’t run a red light or a stop sign or anything like that. To my amazement, however, the sheriff’s deputy immediately turned the corner and pursued the SUV, clearly intending to pull it over.

I’m sure cars do get pulled over for speeding in Oakland sometimes, but I have literally never seen it happen before, and I spend a fair amount of time walking and biking around the city as cars speed by. Maybe that deputy was particularly enlightened, or maybe he never got the memo about how reckless driving is tolerated on the streets of Oakland, but either way, it was nice to see—I look forward to a day when it will no longer seem remarkable to see a speeding SUV get pulled over in our city.

Fun with Google Maps for Bicycling

Friday, March 12th, 2010

It’s pretty exciting that the folks at Google Maps have added bicycling directions in addition to the walking and public transit options that have been available for a few years. I’ve played with the bicycling directions a bit over the past few days, and they seem to work pretty well, suggesting routes which have bike lanes or bike boulevards, and directing people around steep hills when a good alternative exists. They advise, however, that “bicycling directions are in beta,” and there are definitely some kinks to work out. Gene at Our Oakland, for example, pointed out that Google suggests riding on a “hecka busy, hecka steep” street behind Montclair Village instead of using the much easier (and much more pleasant) rail-to-trail bike path that I wrote about back in January. My favorite suggestion so far, however, is this route between Grand Avenue and Park Boulevard:

This is an unlikely route for several reasons, but the part that amused me the most is near the top, where Google Maps suggests a shortcut between Beacon Street and Merritt Avenue. That might look like a sensible maneuver on a map, but in real life, few (if any) people on bikes would choose that shortcut. To see why, all you have to do is switch to the street view in Google Maps and look at the turn from Beacon Street toward Merritt Avenue:

Oops! I hope your bike is lightweight, because you’ll have to carry it up about 5 flights of stairs, which just happen to be steeper than most—enjoy the workout!

Google is aware that it is using imperfect data to suggest routes, so they are encouraging people to report problems. If they are responsive to feedback, and receive enough of it, then these issues should be easily fixed, but until then, use caution, lest Google send you and your bike flying down any steep staircases…

Watch Out

Friday, March 5th, 2010

You are being watched

Rubberneckers

Neon

Home sweet home

Doing More With Less: OPD’s Plans to Bring Down Crime

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

In yesterday’s post about the community meeting with Oakland’s new police chief, I focused almost entirely on his presence and leadership qualitiies, and I mostly ignored the specifics of his plan. That was partly intentional: I am not an expert on policing strategies, nor do I wish to become one. The whole point of having an effective police chief, in my view, is so that non-professionals don’t need to concern themselves with policing strategies. Given Chief Batts’s success reducing crime in Long Beach, his evident intelligence and competence, and what appear to be good leadership and management skills, I have high hopes that the department is in good hands, and that if we let him do his job, we will see some measurable results in coming months and years without having to second-guess every decision he makes.

With that said, I did hope to discuss the specifics of his plan a bit more, but I simply ran out of time last night (also, the post was getting longer than I expected). As I wrote last night, most of the meeting was dedicated to a presentation of two documents: the “Strategic Plan Framework,” and a slide show which enumerates the ways in which the Police Department fails to live up to the goals presented in the Strategic Plan, and then repeats the information in the Strategic Plan about how Batts hopes to meet those goals. Both documents are very quick, very easy reads, so I recommend them to anyone in Oakland who wants a clear and simple presentation of what Batts’s priorities are.

I won’t summarize the presentation here, because it is already written in bullet point format in the documents, but Batts (along with Assistant Chief Howard Jordan and Scott Bryant, a strategic consultant who is advising Batts as he reworks the department) did elaborate on several of the topics, so I’ll relay some of that information here in case it is not widely known.

Before I get into any details, I want to mention two things that seemed to pervade every aspect of the meeting. One is Batts’s commitment to transparency, communication, and community involvement. Almost all public officials pay lip service to open government, and almost all of them fail to live up to it. Chief Batts, as far as I can tell, really means it, almost to the point of obsession. He has held dozens of meetings with citizens and organizations all over the city since he was appointed, and he urges residents to provide feedback via online surveys (add your 2 cents here) or by other means. He has reached out to the press and promised to hold regular press conferences. He added Public Information Officers so that the department can get information to the press and the public more quickly and effectively. He makes sure that information is being shared with the public promptly at crime scenes. The man is no dummy, and he knows that fostering good relations with the press and the public will make him personally popular, improve the city’s reputation, and also pay off with increased community cooperation in fighting crime. So there’s strategy and self-interest behind his outreach, but I also think that he truly believes all his talk about providing good service to the department’s “customers.”

The other thing that pervaded every aspect of the meeting was the staffing problem. Almost everything Batts said was placed in the context of explaining how he hoped to accomplish more with inadequate resources. For instance, he explained that he has ordered detectives to work patrol twice a month in order to help reduce 911 response times and provide more police presence in neighborhoods. This helps on the streets, but obviously it means that fewer manhours will be devoted to detective work. And with more officers on the street, more cases will be kicked up to the detectives, so the detectives’ workload could increase as they simultaneously have fewer hours to devote to investigating crimes. He is gambling—that’s his word, not mine—that the beefed up police presence on the streets will eventually pay off in lower numbers of crimes that need to be investigated, but it is a gamble, and clearly he would prefer to have more patrol officers and a full detective corps. He simply doesn’t have enough bodies, so he has to find new ways to make do with what he has.

Another example is 911 response times. Chief Batts displayed this disturbing graph of average response times to 911 calls, comparing Oakland to the norm:

This is an average, so in many cases, it takes far longer than 15 minutes for a cop to show up when someone calls 911 and reports a crime—Batts alluded to horror stories about people who have reported burglaries in the early afternoon, and then been woken up at 4 am by an officer who was finally showing up to take a report. (“Unacceptable” was a word that Batts and Bryant used several times during the presentation.) You can see in the graph that the bulk of the delay is caused because processing the call takes longer, and dispatching a unit takes longer. These are directly caused by a shortage of dispatchers and a shortage of officers on the streets. Batts said that a city like Oakland should have about 12 dispatchers on duty during peak hours (2 pm to midnight, roughly). Oakland usually has 6 dispatchers working during peak hours. He did note that 11 new dispatchers are about to be trained, which will nearly double the total amount (there are currently 15). This should help improve response times somewhat.

The more serious problem is the shortage of officers. The green area in the graph shows delay that is almost entirely caused by a lack of available units—dispatchers are ready to dispatch, but there are no officers ready to be dispatched. Unfortunately, this is extremely hard to address without a major increase in the number of sworn officers, and there are few prospects for any significant improvement in this area anytime soon—Oakland is already about 25 officers below the minimum number of sworn officers mandated by law (803) and Batts said the department loses an average of 4 to 5 officers a month due to attrition. I believe he said that there are two lateral academies scheduled for later in the year (lateral academies are short police academies for officers coming from other jurisdictions), and that he expects a full academy to occur in 2011 (I could have some of this wrong, because I didn’t take notes about everything). Those academies might help keep Oakland near 803 sworn officers, but Batts himself has said that 800 officers is far too small for a city of Oakland’s size and Oakland’s crime rate.

Batts also pointed out that because there is an endless backlog of 911 calls, it means that police officers in Oakland are almost never able to do any real patrolling—or what he called “hunting for crime” by driving up dark alleys, checking in on parolees, and so on. Ideally, he believes that 30% of an officer’s time should be spent on that sort of stuff; in Oakland at the moment, the percentage of time spent on that sort of stuff is essentially zero.

Chief Batts is working on ways to have civilian employees take over some of the desk duties that sworn officers now do, so that he can get more officers out on the streets, but it’s hard to imagine that you can free up a significant number of officers that way. Batts, despite his general candor, was extremely careful last night not to wade into the perennial debate about how to pay for more officers. In the context of answering a question about CompStat, he pointed out that while he is friendly with Bill Bratton and believes strongly in using time-sensitive data analysis as a tool, Oakland is not New York, and indeed, the West Coast is not the East Coast. He noted that eastern cities typically have much larger police forces per capita, but officers are less well paid. He pointed out that New York has about 40,000 police officers and joked, “That’s an army! I could take over the world if I had 40,000 officers!” Despite those observations and the frequent references to limited resources, Batts strenuously avoided expressing any judgments about funding decisions, or the high salaries and generous benefits and pensions that OPD officers receive.

To his credit, Batts never made any effort to use the understaffing of the OPD as an excuse for not being able to accomplish his “vision” of turning Oakland into one of the safest large cities in California by 2015. Instead of whining about how he can’t get anything done with only 800 cops, he talks about the staffing problems as if they are simply a fact of life that he needs to work with. That unwillingness to pass the buck or make excuses is one quality that people seem to find so refreshing.

I’m getting depressed just writing about this stuff, so I should probably move on to the more positive aspects of the meeting. Assistant Chief Jordan reminded people that crime was down 37 percent in January compared to January 2009, and crime is down 31 percent for the year to date. Oakland had 7 homicides through the end of February, compared to 9 in 2009 and many more in 2008. Chief Batts said at one point that the D.A. is bringing more cases, so I assume that means that even as the number of crimes committed has been declining, the number of crimes solved has been rising. I don’t want to read too much into two months of statistics, but I’d certainly rather have the numbers trending lower instead of higher.

Chief Batts has some other priorities which I won’t go into here, since I don’t have anything to add beyond what is in the presentation. He is very interested, for example, in strengthening ties with neighboring cities in order to address some of the regional problems that cause Oakland’s violent crime—the movement of drugs and guns being two major examples. He wants to move to a “Total Community Policing” model, basically meaning that instead of having certain officers assigned to work closely with communities while most officers chase 911 calls, he wants to move toward having all OPD officers work more closely with the communities in their beats.

Chief Batts also seems to believe that a major cultural change has to occur both within the OPD, and out in the community, although I’m not sure he would use that phrase. Morale is incredibly low among OPD staff, according to survey results that appear in the slide show, and the citizenry’s confidence in the OPD is also quite low. Batts is determined to change both of those things, and that is where I think that his leadership qualities may play an important role—deploying resources wisely is one thing, but inspiring confidence among one’s staff and the general public are something else entirely. If Batts fails on either front, then the other one alone might not be enough to really change anything. If he succeeds on both fronts, however, then his goal of making Oakland one of the safest cities in California by 2015 might not be quite as far-fetched as it seems.

Overall, I suspect that most civilians left the meeting feeling more optimistic than they did when they entered. I know that I did—the bad news was mostly old news, and the more recent developments (about the continued drop in crime this year, and the specific strategies that Batts is employing) sound like good places to start. Chief Batts strikes me as a strong leader, but not the kind of strong leader who is so deeply insecure that he cannot delegate properly or share credit where it is due or defer to those who may have more expertise or better ideas about a particular subject. (Did I mention Rudy Giuliani in last night’s post? Ah yes, I did.) And he seems very serious about his goal of dramatically improving the relationship between the department and the community—last night’s meeting was just one example of his efforts to foster collaboration and cooperation instead of division. I would normally be too lazy to write all this up in a long (and somewhat unstructured) blog post, but I figure the least I can do to repay Batts’s efforts to reach out to the public is to help him spread the word. Remember, there are still two more meetings next week, one in West Oakland on Wednesday and in San Antonio on Thursday, and the Chief of Police wants to hear your thoughts and concerns—how often does that happen?

Rare Species Spotted in Oakland: Leadership

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

In late January, I rode my bike three miles in the rain (uphill!) in order to hear Oakland’s new police chief at a community meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting had been cancelled the day before with little public notice, so I ended up riding back home. Given that history, I was a bit reluctant this evening to ride three miles in the rain (uphill again!) in order to hear Oakland’s new police chief at a community meeting. Fortunately, the meeting was not cancelled this time, and even more fortunately, the new chief, Anthony Batts, was as impressive as people have been saying.

“Impressive.” The word seems to pop up whenever anyone talks about Chief Batts, and before I attended tonight’s meeting, I was determined to avoid that word if I wrote anything about it. I had seen snippets of him speaking at press conferences, and I had read about his success in reducing crime in Long Beach, and I had seen his admirably candid assessment of Oakland’s crime problem in his “strategic plan framework,” but I’m a skeptic by nature, and I also saw some things that made me nervous: in several different interviews or appearances, I had heard Chief Batts say that Oakland’s residents are the police department’s customers, and the department’s mission should be to provide excellent service to its customers. That sounded, to me, like the sort of pabulum that one might pick up at management seminars, and I was slightly worried that tonight’s meeting would be full of meaningless jargon about “partnering with our customers” in order to “advance a shared vision of Oakland” and blah blah blah.

To be sure, Chief Batts is a very polished public speaker, and I suspect that he has read a book or two (or fifty) by management and leadership gurus, but I was happily surprised to find that Chief Batts is frank, direct, and plain-spoken. When people ask him questions, he listens carefully, and then he gives a real answer. If he doesn’t want to answer a question, then he’ll explain why he’s not answering the question. If he gets interrupted while he’s answering your question, then he’ll make a point of returning to you later and giving you a full answer. That forthrightness alone is refreshing, in a city whose last police chief specialized in denying the extent of Oakland’s crime problems, and making excuses for the problems that he couldn’t plausibly deny. A taste of Batts’s candor can be seen in his assessment of Oakland’s current situation in the introduction to the strategic plan:

Oakland is not a safe community — in fact it is among the least safe and most violent in the US. Services provided to the Community by the Police Department are nowhere near the standards that should be expected. Many good people in the Community do not trust the Police Department and live in fear of the police as well as of criminals. Collaboration between the Police Department and the Community has not met Community expectations.

As I have said on many occasions, the Oakland Police Department’s management and service delivery systems are broken. The Department is clearly under‐resourced given the level of crime in Oakland and the demand for police services. Basic equipment needed for Department personnel to do their jobs, such as police vehicles, is inadequate. The Department lacks basic police management tools and processes that would allow its limited resources to be focused most effectively. As a result, the morale of the Department’s personnel is very low; the fact that they are still able and willing to provide services given the lack of support is commendable.

It’s no wonder that phrases like “breath of fresh air” tend to appear when people talk about Chief Batts: I can’t overestimate how startling it is to have the police chief acknowledge what pretty much everyone who lives in Oakland has believed for years. Much of tonight’s presentation was devoted to an elaboration on the myriad ways in which Oakland is “not a safe community” and OPD’s “management and service delivery systems are broken.” The full slide show can be seen here; it’s a sobering assessment, detailing high crime rates, slow response times for 911 calls, low clearance rates, low morale among OPD staff, and an enormous backlog in evidence analysis (CSI:Oakland would be a dull show indeed, given the crime lab’s backlog of 775 unexamined fingerprints, 1052 untested DNA samples, etc). Here is one slide that Batts showed tonight:

Having the chief of police show that graph at a community meeting is refreshing enough, but even more remarkable is having the chief of police show that slide as he explains his goal that “by the Year 2015, Oakland is one of the safest large cities in California — both in reality and perception.” I have serious doubts about whether that’s an achievable objective, but I’m glad to have a chief of police who wants to try.

In addition to his candor and his high aspirations, Chief Batts impresses with his leadership. I use that word advisedly, and somewhat reluctantly—after having lived under Rudy Giuliani’s reign, I’m well aware that the flip side of decisive action and accountability can often be vindictiveness, capriciousness, and grandiosity. When one spends some time in a room with Chief Batts, however, reaching for the word “leadership” is nearly unavoidable. There are some people who keep one’s attention by quietly exuding competence and authority, and Batts is one of them. A former boss of mine once described meeting with Colin Powell, and my boss said that he (who had met a lot of powerful men, and was in fact a pretty powerful man himself) had never met someone who so easily commanded one’s attention, not because of his high status or large size, but simply by carrying himself in a certain way. (Malcolm Gladwell has written interestingly about this quality in the New Yorker.)

There’s some of that in Chief Batts—when he speaks, you want to listen, and when he tells you that he can’t make Oakland into a better, safer city without your help, then you want to know where to sign up. I know I may sound like a schoolgirl with a crush here, and I don’t want to sound naive about whether he will actually be able to accomplish a lot in this mess of a city, but seeing Batts tonight reminded me of how rare it really is to encounter compelling leaders.

In the question and answer session that followed the presentation, Batts paid close attention to the questions, answered them honestly and thoughtfully, and seemed to make a good impression on the audience. Then, as the Q-and-A was wrapping up, someone asked a question about what we could do about the chronic understaffing of the police department, and Batts deferred to Councilmember Jean Quan, saying that issues of funding and taxation are for his bosses to decide, not him. Quan, who is running for mayor, strikes me as a nice woman, and she certainly knows far more about the city budget than I do, but the contrast with Batts was inescapable. She stood in front of the room for five minutes talking about how much they’ve already had to cut from the budget, and about how much it would cost to hire more police, and about how much of the city’s funds are untouchable, and so on. I certainly don’t want to diminish the difficulties faced by Oakland’s elected officials as they try to keep the city functioning, but her answer was shapeless and meandering, and people literally started getting out of their seats and leaving as she spoke (in her defense, it was getting late). All I could think was, “This person wants to be the mayor? Oh, dear, we’re in trouble.”

Batts certainly has his work cut out for him, and only time will tell how much of an impact his strategies will have on public safety in Oakland, but sitting there listening to him, I was aware, as I’ve rarely been aware before, of the difference that strong, competent leadership can make. I’m curious to know how members of the OPD feel about him. My sense is that he is the kind of person that people want to work for: he preaches openness and transparency, he encourages discussion and new ideas, he clearly communicates his goals and his expectations for the department, he believes in encouraging practices that work and discarding practices that don’t work, he is a strong advocate of using empirical data to measure the department’s success, and perhaps most importantly, he has that ineffable quality that makes you want to help him succeed, and makes you believe that it might be possible.

Is all that enough to really turn Oakland’s crime problem around and make our city “one of the safest large cities in California” within five years? I really have no idea—as I said above, I have some serious doubts. An aura of competence and a vague strategic plan are all well and good, but we’ll just have to see whether he can translate that into a safer, less divided city. That said, I’ve been contemplating leaving this town lately, and as I listened to Chief Batts tonight, I felt, for the first time in months, a strong urge to stick around and help make this city better. We’ll see if that feeling lasts more than a few hours, but it’s nice to feel, at least for a while, that someone with some actual leadership qualities has come to Oakland. [Update: I wrote a second longish blog post summarizing some of the specific content of Batts’s presentation, which you can find here.]

There are more meetings coming up in other neighborhoods, and I encourage people to attend them. (And none of them are way up a steep hill!) I tend not to be much of a meeting-goer myself, but I’m glad I went to this one. And if you think I’ve been too wowed by Batts’s charisma, then that’s all the more reason to go: you can ask him some hard questions yourself, and see how he answers them. Here are the remaining meetings this week and next:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

  • East Oakland Senior Center
  • 9255 Edes Ave., Oakland
  • 6:30 – 8:00 pm

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

  • Willie Key Recreation Center
  • 3131 Union St., Oakland
  • 6:30 – 8:00 pm

Thursday, March 11, 2010

  • Manzanita Recreation Center
  • 2701 22nd Ave., Oakland
  • 6:30 – 8:00 pm