Police Department’s vitriol against young people is more reason for federal takeover

Federal takeover of Oakland police offers opportunities in new year

January 01, 2013

Oakland, California’s, troubled police department is the first ever to be taken over completely by a federal judge and his appointed director. Oakland’s newest police chief, Howard Jordan, the fifth in a recent succession, has proven unable to reform a department plagued by systematic police brutality and racial profiling and, despite exorbitant budgets, chronic understaffing, abysmal crime-solving rates, and a severely backlogged laboratory.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson on Dec. 12 ordered the Oakland Police Department to be overseen by his appointed “compliance director” with power to overrule the chief, demote his command staff, order expenditures, and even fire him. Figures from the OPD (which may be unreliable, given its history of statistical glitches) indicate that crime increased in 2012, continuing the city’s uneven trends over the last decade as crime elsewhere in the state fell sharply.

OPD’s worst notoriety among many concerned a group of officers known as “The Riders” whose racially-charged framings and beatings of suspects in impoverished West Oakland led to a lawsuit and 2003 settlement in which the city paid $10.9 million to 119 plaintiffs and agreed to a host of specific reforms to department culture and practice.

Unfortunately, Henderson declared in his order to take over department administration, “city and OPD leaders have failed” over nine years to reform the department as mandated to “become more reflective of contemporary standards for professional policing,”

In particular, the harsh contempt among police toward Oakland’s diverse youth—the city’s 35,000 10-17 year-olds are 36% Latino, 32% Black, 14% Asian, 13% White, and 5% identifying as mixed race—underlies the department’s most discriminatory brutalities and failings.

When a teenaged girl was shot to death outside a convenience store by a 36 year-old man in a highly publicized case, the OPD’s press statement branded the victim an “at-risk 16 year-old” and stated her presence in public was to blame for her murder. OPD led city officials angrily demanding a youth curfew aimed at black neighborhoods. Just two days before Henderson’s order, Chief Jordan sweepingly condemned “young people” for “all-out greed and disrespect for each other and each other’s personal safety.”

Had the police chief accused African Americans, Jews, Muslims, or any other adult population in its entirety of perpetrating greed, disrespect, disregard for safety, and deserving of being shot to death for venturing out in public, the chief would face condemnation and dismissal. Why, then, don’t standards of fairness, decency, and respect apply to public officials’ conduct toward youth—especially when, in Oakland as elsewhere, condemning “young people” includes thinly veiled racism?

Officials, particularly those in difficult circumstances, have gotten away with lashing out against scapegoats, and media reporters rarely challenge them. Though prejudices don’t deserve reasoned refutation, the common tactic of scapegoating the young is not justified by factual analysis.

Oakland posts crime statistics only by general youth and adult categories, but national, California, and Alameda County figures detail the ages of offenders. They all show that despite the negative images of “youth violence” fanned by authorities and media imaging, the latest FBI reports show youths commit less than 10% of all violent crime, including just 4% of homicides—far less crime even than adults in their 40s.

For example, in 2010, 2,103 youths under age 18 in Oakland and elsewhere in the county were arrested for violent, property, and other felonies, compared to 3,001 adults ages 40-49. Twice as many 40-agers as teenagers are arrested for drugs every year. Sensational anecdotes too often substitute for sound analysis in official commentary and media depictions of crime, but even these show several recent homicides by over-35 grownups.

Chief Jordan just as easily could have accused all middle-agers of excessive greed, disrespect, and endangerment, which—though also unfair—would at least raise larger, so-far ignored issues concerning big increases in drug abuse and crime among older populations authorities seem loathe to mention.

But demeaning politically powerless young people continues to prove easy for a wide array of interests. That’s unfortunate for many reasons.

Among California’s major cities, Oakland boasts the biggest drop in violence and crime by youths over the last 40 years. That’s a rare bright spot the police chief would be expected to tout instead of dispensing the same old careless, anti-youth fear-mongering.

The unique occasion of this first federalization of a local police department might be the ideal time in which to demand that the chief apologize to the city’s youth and begin to set the Oakland police department on the road to rebuilding broad community legitimacy.

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