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Rare Species Spotted in Oakland: Leadership

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