Director of Public Safety, Venus Johnson and Chief Kirkpatrick

An anthropologist went to a town hall meeting at Lakeshore Baptist Church and experienced her first encounter with the Chief of Police of a major American city. Impossibly shiny black shoes, crisp black uniform, four gold stars on each collar, gun, broad stance, hands on hips, red granny glasses. Overheard saying, ‘I love my Mama, but she put a lot of soap down my throat” in her lilting Memphis accent, Anne Kirkpatrick, whose father was a Baptist minister, is bringing tough love to Oakland to whip its deeply troubled police department into shape. The anthropologist, who worries about her city’s public safety challenges, is intrigued. She truly hopes the cavalry has finally come over the East Bay hills, but she can’t help wondering whether this petite dynamo from Tennessee knows what she has gotten herself into…and whether the OPD is ready to be saved.

The new chief clearly does not suffer foolishness—woe to those officers who intend to carry on with the kinds of shenanigans that have brought the department to its knees—but she is fiercely proud of the way the vast honorable majority of Oakland’s peace officers (their actual job title under legislative law) have weathered storm after storm: “They are tired of it, just like the public is.” Flanked by four sturdy, well-spoken policemen who work in our neighborhood and Venus Johnson, the city’s new public safety director (super, super impressive—keep an eye on her!), Kirkpatrick began the evening by asking those in attendance to support and encourage the police: “They have spent too much time trying to get their leaders to do things,” she said, claiming that it’s “a new day.” She promises to be their number one cheerleader and put the demoralizing history of the department, which has been under federal receivership for 14 years, behind them. Among other things, her eyes are firmly focused on the future, to a time when the last of the fifty mandated tasks the OPD must perform to regain self-management are checked off the list. She is the no-nonsense principal brought in to turn around the neighborhood middle school with appalling test scores, bullying problems, and truancy records. These people, often women, do exist! Oakland knows this, and we’re always on the lookout for such crusaders.

Readers of the Splash Pad News will remember all too well that the OPD burned through three chiefs in nine days about a year ago, leaving behind them a wake of scandals that are still being investigated. Chief Kirkpatrick, 35 years into her career in law enforcement and known as a reformer, has arrived from Chicago determined to reshuffle resources to best meet Oakland’s staggeringly high call for service load (500,000 calls annually), raise the standards for new hires and veterans, and restore public confidence in the beleaguered department. She nearly had the chief’s job four years ago, but then-Mayor Jean Quan chose Sean Whent, who resigned ingloriously last June.

Only three months in her new position, Chief Kirkpatrick is taking advantage of her outsider status and fresh perspective to make independent decisions, but is also filling her already-busy calendar with community meetings in order to listen to and connect with the “folks” she is now responsible for keeping safe. On this particular evening, the middle-aged-plus audience included neighborhood residents, District 2 Councilmember Abel Guillén, former Councilmember Pat Kernighan, the Rev. Jim Hopkins (long-time pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church), and a peace educator, as well as representatives of the Lakeshore Homeowners Association, Kiwanis, Lakeshore Business Improvement District, and Cheney Avenue Facebook Group, among others.

The questions posed by our community-minded neighbors were spot on and articulate: What can we do about outsiders who hijack our peaceful protests? How do you plan to change the culture of the department? Can business owners be confident that the police will effectively constrain the hostile individual who has been menacing patrons on Lakeshore? Why did it take three days for the police to respond to my call about a robbery? Is it true that the police should not be expected to respond unless blood is involved? Are there safe places for teens to gather after school in our neighborhood? What is being done to ensure that a tragedy like the Ghost Ship fire doesn’t happen again? Is it true that the OPD lowered its hiring standards to quickly increase the size of the police force? If so, what are the long-term implications of that strategy? What can neighbors do to collaborate with the police and prevent/address crime?

Chief Kirkpatrick’s responses were equally articulate, and also hope-inducing. When asked about recent peaceful gatherings that have been hijacked by anarchist outsiders, Kirkpatrick stated: “I welcome protests—Oakland’s rich history of protest is one of the things that attracted me—but there is a big difference between a protest and a riot. Under my leadership, no one will be allowed to damage property or hurt another person.” She assured a local business owner that the menacing individual in question has been delivered a “stay-away order” and is being monitored. She carefully outlined the necessary prioritizing process our calls to 911 go through, likening it to triage in a hospital. Councilmember Guillén helpfully stepped in to discuss the budget angle on increasing the police force to its authorized strength of 797 and shared plans to increase the number of bicycle cops around Lake Merritt on the weekends, when some residents of our fair city tend to recreate a little too intensely.

If Kirkpatrick’s plans have taken hold, it should already be harder than before to get a job with the OPD. She’s raising the standards, not lowering them, in order to increase the size of the force, because “Winners are attracted to elite teams.” She wants all-stars who deserve to wear the badge and gun and promises to cut those who don’t meet her standards. Sounds good, right?

But, I wonder: Will all-star cops choose to work on Oakland’s police force? Will the new chief be able to attract A-level applicants to a department in a high-crime city that has experienced such intense blows to its morale and public image? Are those involved in the hiring and training of new officers on board with her tougher recruitment strategy? Can the younger police officers recruited during the past decade be re-trained to act with the kind of confidence Kirkpatrick expects when many are haunted by the specter of complaints from a public distraught by police violence? Can the chief actually “cut” officers who have passed their probationary periods just because they don’t meet her standards? What if they have not openly violated laws or policies?

Kirkpatrick knows that “As a city of prominence, what happens in Oakland turns heads.” We can only hope that from now on the head-turning will be inspired by admiration rather than yet more humiliating scandals and demoralizing national headlines. It’s time to transform, y’all.

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