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Can Policing be Fixed?

The title of this episode is the major question at the heart of a new book, “The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover Up in Oakland.”

The title of this episode is the major question at the heart of a new book, “The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover Up in Oakland.” The book focuses on the Oakland Police Department, in Oakland, California. But the story it tells – of corruption, brutality, and stymied efforts at reform – is one that can be told about many police departments across New York, including the NYPD.


[00:00:00] Simon: Can policing be fixed? That’s the question at the heart of a new book, “The Riders Come Out At Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Coverup in Oakland.” The book focuses on the Oakland Police Department in Oakland, California, but the story it tells of corruption brutality, and stymied efforts at reform is one that can be told about many police departments across New York, including the NYPD.

We’ll get into this rich and deeply frustrating history with the authors of the book in just a moment. First, I’d like to ask you to please rate, review, and subscribe to Rights This Way. It will help more people find this podcast.

Welcome to Rights This Way, a podcast from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of New York State. I’m Simon McCormack, Senior Staff Writer at the NYCLU, and your host for this podcast, which is focused on the civil rights and liberties issues that impact New Yorkers most.

And now I’m joined by three guests. Ali Winston is an independent reporter covering criminal justice, privacy, and surveillance. His work has earned several awards, including the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is a co-author of “The Riders Come Out at Night” and Darwin BondGraham was an investigative reporter for the East Bay Express and part of the team that created the Oakland Side, a local nonprofit news source dedicated to Oakland.

He is also a co-author of the book. And Chris Dunn is the legal director of the NYCLU. Chris has been an advocate and litigator around issues of police reform for many, many years. Allie, Darwin, Chris, welcome to Rights This Way.

[00:01:58] Darwin: Thanks for having us.

[00:02:00] Ali: Good Morning.

[00:02:01] Simon: Great to have you. Yes, I realize it’s 8:00 AM in Oakland. Thank you again for coming on. So, you say in the intro of the book that quote more has been done to try to reform the Oakland Police Department than any other police force in the United States. Yet it still remains, in your words, corrupt and brutal.

I’m curious what makes changing the department in particular and police departments in general, so difficult.

[00:02:29] Darwin: Yeah, I mean, that’s a massive question. So, maybe I’ll just start off with kind of like elaborating on the premise a little bit more, cuz I think a lot of people from like New York or Los Angeles would say “is Oakland really the place where more has been done to try to change policing than anywhere else?”

And yeah, we would say, yeah, it is. And that’s because, you know, Oakland has just as rich a history of organizing against police violence as any other city in the United States. If you go back and look throughout Oakland’s history, there’s various ways in which people on the outside, you know, we’re talking about like labor radicals or civil rights attorneys, or members of different ethnic communities, different racial groups who were like, subject to the oppression of police at different periods in history. They’ve pushed back really hard against the police department.

And, you know, we certainly see that in a lot of other cities. But in Oakland also, one of the key things is that the past 20 plus years, the Oakland Police Department has been under a consent decree, and it’s a very special type of consent decree. I mean, again, a lot of police departments in the United States have been put under consent decrees, but most of those reform agreements have been brought by the Department of Justice and the DOJ comes in and they create this consent decree, and then within 5, 6, 7, 8 years they’re usually signing off on it and sort of exiting, right?

In Oakland, the difference is that this was brought by attorneys in private practice. Civil rights attorneys representing a class of 119 men who sued the city back in the year 2000 and that consent decree hasn’t gone away. It’s, it’s been one of the longest running consent decrees to reform a police department in American history.

So, if you take that and then combine that with all of the other activism and organizing. I mean, we’re talking intense activism, right? Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers, right? A group that like fundamentally tried to challenge the premise of policing in a racialized society. Oakland really has been a place where more has been done to challenge policing than anywhere else.

And yet, the police remain unreformed in Oakland. I mean, to this day, like as we speak right now the department has been roiled by like several controversies. There was a very recent scandal in which the chief of police and the head of internal affairs and other high ranking officers, were found to have allowed serious misconduct by a popular sergeant who was running a politically advantageous policing program in Oakland Chinatown.

They allowed this guy to get away with really serious misconduct. They looked the other way, essentially. That cost the chief of police’s job. And now there’s a, there’s an even newer sort of explosive case where a, a longtime homicide investigator, his cases are being questioned. He’s done hundreds of cases over the past decade and it appears that in at least one case he engaged in, you know, bribing a witness and intimidating her into falsely testifying and sending two men to prison.

So these scandals, they keep popping off and it certainly illustrates the difficulty of reforming policing, but why is it so hard to reform policing? That’s a super complex question.

[00:05:39] Ali: I would also add that the size of Oakland, the fact that it’s a city of 450,000, the fact that the department is not a 30,000 officer army, like the NYPD, excuse me, that’s in a low count, 35, 40,000. It’s not the size of somewhere like LAPD. The city charter, there’s a very large constituency here

for police reform and for police accountability. So the council members and the mayor have been brought around in recent years to change fundamental aspects of how the structure of city government is formed and how the police department fits into that structure. For instance, the city no longer has a model where the city manager, the mayoral appointee, runs the police department.

So you have an appointee that’s shielded from political concerns. It’s shielded from an election who, who runs the police department. Now it’s a police commission, right? That is appointed across from people around the city through different parts of city government and they run the police department.

They’re in charge of it. In order to do that in New York City, you would have to rewrite the city charter and that is a sisyphean task. So that sort of size and the makeup of the city’s constituency means that it’s actually a very interesting place to study in terms of what is and isn’t possible in terms of changing around the base aspects of what a policing structure looks like and how it fits into city government.

[00:07:02] Chris: And Simon, let me chime in. Somewhat ironically, I appreciate the invocation of sisyphus and the notion about political structures and commissioners. I mean, when it comes to thinking about the difficulties of reforming police departments, I think the question is how do you change the behavior of cops?

And, you know, the book starts off with a very dramatic recitation about a rookie cop Keith Batt. And he goes to the academy, that’s all fine and good, and then he meets his field training officer and he’s in a car with a guy. And that’s where things have to change. And those are the things that are almost impossible to change because I can tell you, as a lawyer who’s litigated and had consent decrees for decades, it’s all fine and good to have a piece of paper that a judge has signed.

Do you think a guy sitting in an FTO car at two in the morning gives whatever about that piece of paper and no he or she does not. And what makes all this so hard, and it’s true with most of life, is what happens in policing is what a guy is doing on the street in a moment of time when he is encountering somebody.

And that is a very tough nut to crack.

[00:08:16] Simon: Right. And, that sort of to me leads into my next question, which is, you, you, you’ve pointed out some of the barriers to actually changing things and the limitations of policing. But, you know, at the beginning of the book it, it quickly sketches out, the decline of Oakland as it de-industrialized like many other cities across the United States, plenty of them in New York.

And this is happening, you know, within the seventies and eighties. You point to various issues like white flight, high unemployment, you know, there’s boarded up businesses, boarded up homes, and then there’s the launch of the War on Drugs, which further fuels gang violence. These are obviously like, quite deep and entrenched issues and complex issues that need to be dealt with in a, in a number of ways.

But it seems like, at the point when your book picks up, they’ve sort of been handed over to the police to solve as best they can. Can you both talk about the, the issues you lay out and the problems with this sort of police first approach?

[00:09:16] Darwin: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, let’s start in the 1940s. Oakland in the forties is like a lot of American cities. It’s booming because of World War II, right? So there’s this huge investment by the federal government and a lot of base industries, armaments, manufacturing, a lot of other stuff.

And the American economy is really picking up a lot of steam, right? Because it’s churning out all this war material. And with this huge economic boom, there is some prosperity and growth in cities. By the time the 1950s comes around, there’s a bit of an economic slump. The sixties, the seventies you start to see de-industrialization in the urban core areas.

And these are the areas where African Americans migrated to during World War II to pick up a lot of the industrial jobs that were created, right? So Oakland is like the quintessential city that experiences this post-war slow decline. And it, really peaks by about the eighties, just like the ship building industry that was in the East Bay is long gone.

A lot of the other factories are shutting down. It’s not that the American economy overall is doing bad. It’s actually, it’s doing okay. It’s that the jobs and the prosperity is being moved out of the urban core into suburban areas where the white population for the most part has like decamped to, you know, so you’ve got good schools and jobs in like Silicon Valley and like these other suburban areas around Oakland.

And this is, you can take this precise model and just like kind of map it to almost any major urban area in the United States. And that’s essentially what’s happening. So, by the 1980s, 1990s, this is the neoliberal era, right? The federal government has been set up not to invest in significant social welfare programs that are meant to support people who are living in poverty. Right? And it’s certainly not set up to do deep economic and social investment in communities that can go beyond simply welfare and actually empower those communities to create new jobs, to have small businesses to have good schools, to have good public infrastructure and things like that.

So, instead Oakland is a place where there just aren’t jobs. There’s significant environmental racism, air pollution from the port. It’s cut off from a lot of the surrounding opportunity. I mean, you think about it, Oakland is like, within sight. You can see Silicon Valley across the bay on a clear day, one of the most prosperous places in the world.

But Oakland is not experiencing that. And in that context you’ve basically laid the economic and social foundations for crime because people who are deeply alienated and experiencing extreme inequality, particularly racialized inequality,

we know that in societies like that, the phenomenon of crime occurs and crime becomes a serious problem. And so because the leadership in the federal government, state government, they aren’t willing to step in and fundamentally reform the American economy and address the deeply seated racism, structural racism, that is impacting communities like African Americans and Latinos and others in California because they aren’t willing to do that.

The only other solution they have at hand to deal with crime is police. And so there’s huge investments in policing and prisons in California in the eighties, the nineties, California goes on, you know, one of the biggest prison buildings sprees in global history. Building more prisons than universities and the Oakland Police, you know, the city budget

basically, 40% of the Oakland General Fund gets poured into the police department. They spend about 300 plus million a year on policing. And Oakland’s by far the best funded department in the city today because you are basically addressing the symptoms of these other economic and social problems and you’re doing it with policing.

[00:13:07] Simon: Right. Absolutely. And, and, into this void where there could be economic development, social services, more education, the way we’ve all been talking about that would,

actually, you know, start the process of solving these issues. Instead comes a group of corrupt officers known as the Riders. Darwin, can you start actually and just describe who they are, how they come about and, and also what, what time we’re talking about here?

[00:13:32] Darwin: Yeah, this is the late nineties all the way up to the year 2000 and the Riders are emblematic of a small but significant proportion of officers in the Oakland Police Department at the time. They literally are four individuals. Chuck Mabanag, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung, and Frank Vasquez.

And they’re patrol officers. They’re just sort of normal. The majority of Oakland police officers are on, are, patrol. They have a car, a radio, and they drive around responding to 911 calls for service for the most part. But the Riders are the type of officers in the department who are young, idealistic, aggressive, and proactive.

They want to go out and they want to make felony arrests. Lots of them. This is sort of their passion for policing. The Riders are also individuals who sort of view Oakland cynically as a place that is, you know, filled with criminals who will take advantage of you and kill you if you slip for a moment as a police officer.

So, you’ve gotta have your guard up all the time. So, these individuals, by the year 2000 and this is where the politics come in because it’s not, although yes, the story of Oakland is that there’s de-industrialization and economic, the economy is slumping and there’s high unemployment, but by the year 2000, there is a plan to invest billions of dollars into Oakland.

But that plan is devised by Vin Mayor, Jerry Brown, and others who decide that the way that they wanna lift up Oakland is called the 10K plan because they envision building at least 10,000 units of upscale market rate housing around the downtown.

So, the plan is essentially to attract affluent outsiders to come and like repopulate the downtown. The plan is not to intervene and help out in the lives of the people who are currently living in Oakland. And so that’s the economic context in which the rioters then are, you know, they’re showing up to police lineups in the afternoon before they go out for the dog watch at night into the early hours of the morning.

And literally the mayor and the police chief and captains are coming into these police lineups and telling the officers, we want you to be more aggressive, we want you to go out and make more felony arrests, we want you to get drug dealers in particular off the streets. And what the rioters hear from these officials is, we’ll back your play. If there’s blowback here, we’ll support you. So the riders decide to go out and be proactive. So instead of just patrolling by, like taking calls on the radio, like shots fired over here, or so-and-so’s calling for service over there, they drive around and they just start picking out people on the street who they think are drug dealers and they jump out on ’em and they grab ’em, they throw ’em on the ground and they search ’em.

And when they don’t find anything, they miraculously will find, you know, little baggies of crack nearby. And it quickly becomes apparent that some of them are throwing these in the bushes and some of the cops are putting these drugs in the bushes, the grass, finding them on people, quote unquote, you know, they’re planting these drugs, they’re writing false reports.

And they’re being extremely brutal in a way that is completely uncalled for the, the way that they’re beating people up, using their batons, pepper spray, punching and kicking people. It’s quite sadistic. So, the Riders are doing this for quite a while until a rookie officer named Keith Batt comes onto the force.

He’s assigned a training officer, Chuck Mubanag. He goes out for, you know not even two weeks, like on the street, and he sees all of this and it’s apparent to him that this goes far beyond anything that he was taught in the police academy. He’s literally told by one of the officers, you know, f probable cause, like forget all that legal stuff, constitutional rights, throw that out the window, let’s just jack these guys up and send ’em to prison.

So, that’s who the Riders are and that’s the economic context in Oakland that they’re working in.

[00:17:41] Simon: Okay, so, thank you for that, that is important background. And, again, in the, book you’re gonna get even more details on the Riders and their exploits. So now I want to fast forward a little bit to 2003 where there is a negotiated settlement agreement that comes as a result of the violence inflicted by the Riders on 119 black men.

And the city of Oakland agrees to put Oakland Police Department under the watchful eye of an independent monitor. Who will make sure the department accomplishes 52 reform tasks. And the goal is to do that within five years. That obviously seems, you know, like a plan. But, then we fast forward again to 2012 and the department is under threat of being put into receivership and, and having the city of Oakland lose control of its police department,

because, you know, this settlement agreement to say the least, has not been very effective. What happened in those nearly 10 years that kept the settlement from improving things?

[00:18:48] Ali: So, there’s a few things. One, the Riders, three of the Riders were put on trial, on criminal trial for their actions twice. The cases resulted in hung juries and acquittals. Uh, the fourth rider, Frank Vasquez, actually fled the country before his preliminary hearing in 2001, I believe. In the early two thousands, and he actually is still a fugitive presumably in Mexico where he was born and has relatives.

So, the lack of a criminal conviction and the lack of a formal findings report as the sort, you know, of the sort that you get when the Federal Department of Justice or a State Attorney General conducts a pattern of practice investigation that actually helped foster a narrative within the police department and also within certain elements of the political class in Oakland, though, they would never say this out loud and public to a reporter, that the Riders was a fake scandal and that these were good cops.

They were also popular, decorated officers who had been doing their job and had been thrown under the bus by city politicians to help some plaintiff’s attorneys get rich. And, you know, people who weren’t interested in keeping Oakland safe, they were just interested in the payday. So, for the first five years of the consent decree, It essentially didn’t come out of the desk drawer.

The department ignored it. They thought it would go away. There was no impetus from the city’s mayor, Jerry Brown, who was mayor at the time of the scandal and was on kind of his ascent back to the governorship in Sacramento and he passed through the State Attorney General on the way.

There was this attitude that, you know, this is gonna go away. We can wait this out. It’s not that serious. And as a result, throughout the first five years of the consent decree, there were a number of very serious episodes that cropped up literally as the ink was drying on the consent decree. In 2003, the police department OPD conducted a brutal operation to violently suppress an anti-war demonstration at the Port of Oakland in April 2003, which was cited by Amnesty International

as the most egregious case of police violence against the anti-war movement in 2003. And for those listeners who don’t have the memory, there were quite a lot of instances of really nasty police abuse towards demonstrators in 2003, especially in New York, where horses were used to corral and trample protestors, including some of my friends from high school.

So, you had instances where officers were accused of having a policy of strip searching people in public in Oakland for narcotics, presumably. There were a, there was a spate of bad officer involved shootings. There was an instance in 2008 where a series of cases uncovered the systematic falsification of search warrants for narcotic searches in Oakland.

I think two-thirds of all warrants authored by the department were discovered to be, you know, Illegitimate. So, the failure to implement the reforms to ensure that people were not racially profiled, that internal affairs investigations were conducted in an appropriate manner, that there was appropriate supervision and leadership and a consistent standard of discipline.

These had real world consequences. And in several instances, you know, you’d see direct connections between officer-involved shootings, lethal officer-involved shootings and poor instances of discipline or discipline that was overridden and not actually implemented for the cops involved.

And as such, by 2009, and I’m trying to skim through a very, very vivid very rich period of history here. 2009, Oscar Grant, a young African American man is killed by a transit officer in the Bay Area, Rapid Transits System at Fruitvale Station. This touches off weeks of very sustained protests, civil disturbance.

The cop who shoots him ends up getting charged tried and convicted of manslaughter. The charges are downgraded, but throughout this movement and the course of the criminal case in 2009, 2010, there are very sustained social movements that kind of bring together people from around the Bay Area and Oakland around the cause of police violence and police accountability.

And while the killing didn’t concern an Oakland police officer, it served as kind of a load star for a number of other to kind of bring up the issue and keep it in public focus in California. And Johannes Mehserle, the officer, was the first cop convicted for a on duty killing in Californian history at that point.

Then, in 2011, there’s a nationwide kind of groundswell of activism and protest around the the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Oakland encampment was extremely militant. There were tons of clashes with the police department here. Once again, police accountability was a major focus of the Oakland portion of this social movement.

And as a result of the police department’s just kind of absurd use of force to suppress that movement, there are record numbers of complaints. There are people who are injured, almost killed by less lethal rounds. And the lack of integrity, the just sheer incompetence and kind of malicious intent to kind of subvert some of these investigations,

criminal and administrative, on behalf of the police department. Really kind of, that’s the last straw for the judge at the time. And the kind of demonstrated failures of the reforms from the Rider’s settlement is what leads the department up to the point of getting partially taken over by the court.

And in 2013, the court monitor is given the powers essentially of a receiver, in all but name. So, that is the point where Oakland loses partial control of how the police department’s run. And it’s essentially still that way.

[00:24:25] Chris: And Simon, let me offer a slightly less rich and perhaps more simplistic view, but I’ll just say no police department is ever gonna be reformed by a court order by itself, much less a court order in five years. These places do not change without all parts of the system, including the electeds, the lawyers, the cops, the press, the public,

having a fundamentally different view of what policing is about and has to be a little less self righteously. Allie and Darwin, I have an idea for your next book, the title of which is, where is Frank Vasquez? And it’ll all be about the two of you tracking that guy down and bringing him back. And as far as we know, he’s hiding in plain sight.

He may be working for the NYPD as far as we know. So I, I do have a question for the two of you, which is, Simon, I don’t wanna preempt your role here, but where is the guy? And how come he hasn’t surfaced?

[00:25:28] Darwin: So yeah, I mean, when he didn’t show up for arraignment in 2000, the last he was seen was he was in his car in Susan City, little kind of rural town out near the Delta, northeast of Oakland. He’s driving around, he’s got a department issued rifle in the back of his car, and he’s got other weapons in the car pulled over by a Susan City police officer.

He somehow convinces this guy probably by badging him. I’m, I’m an officer also to just let him go. And that’s kind of the last that he’s ever seen, at least by a law enforcement officer. He disappears. And the FBI opened a, you know, fugitive manhunt for him. They, you know, they issued their little posters and made some noise about, you know, wanting to chase him down.

But clearly the FBI didn’t throw a lot of resources into this. He’s gone, no one really knows where he is and there’s never been really word about where he’s gone. He does have family in the United States, and it’s probably true if you were actually a law enforcement official with some resource.

If you were the Attorney general of California, you could probably assign a few investigators. And I don’t think it would be that hard to find the guy if he’s still alive, and he probably is. You know, he probably went to Mexico where he had family in southern Mexico. I forget the exact state, but He probably went down there for a while to hide out and who knows? Yeah, maybe he’s back in the United States now. But his disappearance and all of that, is a pretty good illustration of law enforcement isn’t always all that vigorous in pursuing its own.

Now, yeah, the Riders were put on trial twice. And that’s because the assistant district attorney at the time and an inspector in the district attorney’s office, they wanted to really send a message to law enforcement locally that the kind of behavior the Riders were engaged in was not gonna be tolerated.

But that sentiment wasn’t widely shared within the District Attorney’s office and the prosecutors and other Bay Area law enforcement. So the accountability here it sort of got away from everyone.

[00:27:43] Ali: Yeah, and the, those officers who remained in the United States, they actually remain within OPD’s social circles. They’re quite popular still. They have connections that you can see all over social media to former deputy chiefs, captains, lieutenants, line officers. One of them, I believe is still married to, his wife was an Oakland police officer until maybe, I think she might have retired in the last year or two.

But they’re still very much interwoven in that system and with regard to Vasquez and how he got out of the country. There was this kind of this cognitive dissonance that was going on at the time. Within OPD during the trials and we could see this from the police chief at the time, from Richard Word’s own departmental bulletins.

One bulletin from the year 2000, when the initial investigation and arrests happened, showed something of the sort of, okay, officers have been arrested, they’ve been charged as an egregious conduct. We do not condone it. We expect this investigation will be done under full compliance with the law and it’ll be thorough.

That’s on one side of the bulletin. On the back, the last note, there’s a collection box in the lobby of OPD headquarters for officers Mabanag, Vasquez, Hornung and Siapno. If you would like to give money to them, please give it to them. It’s put, it’s, you know, on behalf of the Oakland Police Officers Association, the local cop union.

So, this is on the same sheet of paper, the other side of it, literally, and it’s just, that attitude kind of persisted throughout the trial. And you know, there are many folks, and this is not something we could ever confirm, but one major theory about how Frank got out of the country is that another cop drove him down to San Diego and he walked across the border.

[00:29:23] Simon: So, I also just want to be clear that Chris’s advice to try to track Dan Frank Vasquez is that is in his personal capacity and that the NYCLU does not condone or encourage just based on-

[00:29:38] Ali: Acts of journalism?

[00:29:39] Chris: I, I, I run a side fugitive retrieval service, and Ali and Darwin, and I will be talking afterwards.

[00:29:46] Simon: Excellent, excellent. I just think in terms of what he’s accused of that what Chris is asking to do is somewhat dangerous. But I want to get into, and Ali, you touched on this a bit, but about policing of protests, both the OPD and the NYPD have a checkered history of policing protests.

So Ali, you talked a bit about the OPDs history there. Chris, I’d actually love to throw it to you to talk a bit about how you think the NYPD historically polices, protests and, whether that’s gotten better over the years, where you see that now?

[00:30:20] Chris: You know, I would say there’s a lot of range to this and we, on the sort of consent decrees, we have an order from a case from 1971 that we are still monitoring that deals with NYPD political surveillance, which arises from the surveillance of the Black Panthers and the anti-war movement in the early seventies.

And people lose track of the historical antecedence to things and the book does a terrific job of painting the history of policing in Oakland. And the same thing is true with the NYPD going back to the late 19th century. They were always out there cracking heads when it came to protestors. From anti-war activists in World War I, forget 2003, World War I, which is just a kind of a tune up for a hundred years later in what’s happening around the Iraq war. The police have always been when it comes to protest, in times that count. It’s easy to police protests that are calm. It’s easy to police protests in times where there’s no turmoil.

The real test is when there’s turmoil. World War I had a lot of turmoil. The Vietnam War had a lot of turmoil. The George Floyd protests had a lot of turmoil. And those are moments when kind of the truth of a police department comes out. And the NYPD has not performed well in those circumstances.

And the George Floyd protests are our most recent example of that in which we had an extraordinary use of brutality enforced by police officers against protestors across the city. It was not a few bad apples. It was not a couple locations. It was not a few guys in a particular precinct. It was across the city.

It was across the department, top to bottom. And that’s a real indictment of the NYPD I have been in many, many, many protests where I feel like they have done reasonable and responsible things. Those get completely overshadowed when the going gets tough and the truth of a police department comes out and repeatedly the NYPD has failed that test.

[00:32:25] Simon: And speaking of comparing the two departments, maybe this is just me, but I was struck in your book when you described the Oakland Police Department as having, I believe it was like 700 something that is kind of insane to me.

I, I’m just curious for all three of you to kind of lay out, well, one is that a, a normal size for a department that is 450,000 people, and, then can you talk about why the NYPD is so large?

[00:32:52] Darwin: The thing about Oakland, this gets a little wonky, but, um, it’s a lot and you know, some people in New York will probably take issue with what I’m about to say, but it’s more expensive to live in Oakland than it is to live in New York City. The housing prices are higher and other costs of living, commute especially.

The Bay Area doesn’t have great transit. And police officers tend to not live in Oakland. They tend to live in even more expensive suburban areas in neighboring Contra Costa County or up north in like Napa or Sonoma County. And in California in general, it costs much more to hire and maintain police officers than it does on the East Coast.

East Coast cops are paid generally a lot less than West Coast cops. West Coast cops also just receive a bunch more training. Departments tend to equip them with a lot more equipment on an individual basis. So, Oakland spends, know, the last I think year it’s spent about 340 million on its police department.

The vast majority of that went to salaries for its sworn police officer force. And yeah, they only have about 700 officers right now in their ranks. At any given time? I forget the exact number, but it’s like, there’s like 40 something cops patrolling the city at any given time because of the rotational schedule that they need to have. Because of people being out on medical leave or other leaves of absence. You know, lots of cities have more police officers per capita. The other issue with Oakland is Oakland does have a very serious violent crime problem. There are a lot of homicides, a lot of shootings, a lot of assaults, a lot of robberies.

The violent crime rate in Oakland is among the highest of any city in the country. It’s usually within the top 10 or 20 lists when you rank them.

[00:34:49] Ali: And also the city compensates for the shortage of manpower by putting officers on overtime, so they backfill shifts. As a result, you have sergeants, patrol officers, they’ll earn 350, 400,000, $500,000 a year in all benefits sold. That doesn’t happen with an individual NYPD officers.

I’ve seen maybe about 250, $300,000 for overall compensation. A lot of it coming from people who work specialized assignments in NYPD. So, the idea of policing on the West Coast is also a different idea of policing. It is radio car policing. You are typically riding solo or occasionally with a partner.

As an officer, you’re asked to respond to different calls like that. Ergo the training is a little bit more intensive and they require officers to undergo certification more frequently. There is also a more stringent physical test. The NYPD over the years has kind of changed its standards to hire people and make the department more of an attractive job, even though the job itself does not pay well.

There have been many contract struggles and that’s kind of one of the major issues the NYPD has had over the years is hiring and retention of officers because the pay scale doesn’t increase. Now the, one of the reasons why pay is as high as it is on the West Coast is to kind of deter the sort of graft that you would see rampant throughout East Coast police departments in the 1970s and eighties, nineties, and that you still do see every now and then, you know, the opportunity to make money through bribes and that sort of thing.

But also there’s an idea of policing in New York City where you just flood the zone with bodies. You just put bodies on a problem and that is the solution. Oh, there’s crime in that area? Put 20 cops there. Oh, we’re having issues with drug dealing in that area? 20 cops on that problem.

And that’s a different conception of law enforcement. And in some ways like the actual, the way that people go about their job and their familiarity with the tools on their job is quite different. I mean, the qualification, just the firearms qualifications for what NYPD officers have to do per year in order to re-certify is significantly less than what you have to do in a city like Oakland.

But they’re, you know, the different philosophies, different modalities, like cops in New York, many of them are foot posts now and have been foot posts for quite some time. There’s still a lot of cops that drive around in their car and will stand around playing on their phones. But it’s just a different way of patrolling and being active.

Also, they respond per officer to far fewer calls than they do out west because of the numbers issue.

[00:37:16] Chris: Well, the one thing I’ll add is New York City’s got a lot of money and if you’ve got a lot of dough, you can buy a lot of cops.

[00:37:23] Simon: Yeah. That makes sense. And you conclude your book by saying that police departments can be successfully reformed. Again, the, book goes into much more detail on this, folks should definitely read the book for a better detail.

But just if you could briefly sketch out some of the successful reforms that, that OPD went through, especially after the 2012 basically receivership as,

as you said.

[00:37:46] Darwin: Yeah, they’ve overhauled the department completely. It, it’s a completely different department than it was in 2000 in many ways. They have overhauled the command and control structures. There’s much more supervision of patrol officers, but patrol officers no longer can go out and just sort of get lost on their beat and they’re not have a sergeant paying attention to what they’re doing, which is something that caused a lot of misconduct and unaccountability in the past.

They’ve changed all sorts of policies and yeah, policy is just on paper and it doesn’t always translate into practice and culture, but they have successfully implemented a lot of policies into practices. Oakland actually has enormously reduced the number of unjustified stops of African Americans by police officers, unjustifiable stops and searches.

There’s been a huge decline in the overall number of black people stopped by the Oakland police and searched by the Oakland Police. And that’s because they’ve gathered a lot of rich data about police stops. They’ve given it to researchers who have then turned it around to show the problem, to show that essentially racial profiling is happening.

And then they’ve come up with policies to reduce racial profiling by officers and across the entire department. They’ve studied the language that officers use when they stop people to show how there are subtle forms of racism that are at work when officers are addressing a black or Latino motorist, for example, versus a white person.

Officers tend to be more casual, hey dude, what’s up? When they stop a Latino or a black person. They say, sir, or, you know, ma’am to a white person. So they’ve identified those things and they, through trainings, they have been able to change the behavior of officers on a day-to-day basis. The most serious examples of this have to do with use of force and officer-involved shootings.

They have implemented policies throughout the Oakland Police Department that have successfully reduced the number of times that officers are using batons, pepper spray and deadly force, primarily firearms on people that literally translates to fewer people being killed by the police every year in Oakland.

As many as like 5 or 10 people now, you know, it used to be 10, 15 people a year could be shot and killed by an Oakland police officer. Now it’s 1, 2, 3, maybe four in a year. That’s still, you know, 1, 2, 3, 4 shootings, too many, you know, it would be great to get to zero. But the difference there is it means a lot to people whose lives were saved and families who did not have to go through losing a loved one to police violence.

So, all of these reforms were implemented and made possible through the consent decree. But, also, the consent decree alone would not have been enough. The external pressure on the department by social movements, by activists even internally by a minority of officers within the department who are pushing back internally against these bad policies.

All of that, over many decades, that constant pressure to transform policing in Oakland has been successful. So, there has been reform. The big question is, is the reform enough? a lot of people would say, we don’t just need police reform. We need a more fundamental transformation of our overall public safety system.

And so is it enough to just make the police less harmful? That’s the question that I think the community in Oakland and all across the United States. Communities need to ask themselves like, if we’ve done reform, is the reform enough or do we need to pursue more fundamental transformations?

And I think that’s kind of the point Oakland is at right now. Reforms have worked, also, those reforms have run up against a, a brick wall in some ways. Especially the corruption in the department, the lack of willingness for command staff in particular to take accountability and to hold people accountable.

That’s really been the hardest thing to change. And it still hasn’t changed in Oakland, but a lot of other stuff has changed. And so the question at this point is, you know, are we enough to keep just chipping away slowly on this reform path, or do we want to go that more fundamental transformative path?

[00:42:04] Ali: Yeah, I think that there’s a common thread that has to deal with the sheer number of police chiefs that Oakland has cycled through. And again, you know, being the chief of police, it’s, the change really does happen at sergeant, lieutenant level, field training officer level.

That’s where you actually do manage to shift around the culture of an institution to make that change last. But the game of musical chairs that’s been played over the past couple decade, past decade, especially in Oakland with the top department official kind of losing their position oftentimes for stepping in and thwarting an internal affairs investigation.

The reason why they’ve been kind of forced to fall on their sword has been directly due to the outside oversight, the form of the consent decree and the monitor’s presence and role in these investigations. But the ways in which these patterns tend to repeat themselves do, as Darwin said, point to a broad, a deeper issue about impunity at the top and trying to kind of subvert the nature of an institution in order to fit a political goal, in order to shape perception of a department in public.

To kind of check the box and get out from underneath of a consent decree. That is an outside imposition and is a political, you know, albatross to the mayor at the time. And that really begs the question of can you get rid of outside oversight like this? Should you get rid of outside oversight like this?

And frankly it has been the determining factor in every single major change that the police department has put in place over the past 20 years. You know, there are lawsuits such as the class actions brought for public strip searches, the search warrants, they all play a push factor, but they work within the context of the consent decree and involvement of the federal district court here in the running of the police department on the day-to-day.

And in terms of shifting around and looking at society and looking at what other aspects of the city government and what other aspects of public institutions can be used to improve public safety. Oakland is turning to an intervention model. A non-violent, non-police intervention model for calls involving mental health, homelessness, substance abuse.

The unit here is called Macro. They have been used in kind of a violent interrupter capacity, but they’re also out there to give kind of non-coercive assistance in other situations. And they have a decent amount of funding. The program is still going through kind of birthing pains, but that effort to talk about what else you can do to address these problems other than law enforcement that started here about over 10 years ago.

And it’s taken that long to get to this point. And again, you know, you don’t also have the, the blunderbuss of the New York Post, you know, screaming bloody murder every time you shift money away from a cop, every time that a white shirt in a, in the NYPD loses their uniform driver or something, some absurd perk like that.

That dynamic, that kind of crutch that the status quo has, it doesn’t exist here. So, in a ways it’s easier to make those changes than it is in a place with more institutional actors who are in favor of the status quo, like New York City or Los Angeles for that matter.

[00:45:03] Simon: And Chris, along those lines, I’m curious where you see the NYPD at in terms of reform.

[00:45:09] Chris: Well, I think the NYPD in truth is a very different institution than it was 50 years ago. I think even Frank Serpico would say that it is a more professionalized organization. It’s a more supervised organization. And to the point that Darwin was making, I think that the kind of community that surrounds the NYPD has a different view of policing and a different recognition of the problems of policing than existed even 50 years ago.

That’s not to say they don’t have a long ways to go. And yeah, the truth of the matter is police department culture and behavior is not linear. It gets better, it gets worse. It depends on the moment and the point in time and the point in history. I mean, for instance, we now have a police department where we have relatively few shootings.

That’s great. We have a stop and frisk regime that is a small fraction of what it was 10 years ago, which is great. But we have shown in the George Floyd protests, a kind of almost a median impulse to resort to force in dealing with situations that do not require force. And I think that actually force

is one of the new frontiers for a lot of policing. Once you get past the craziness, the complete craziness, and you get to more day-to-day policing, just the routine use of force against civilians is oftentimes where the rubber really hits a road. And that’s a real issue with the NYPD. So is it better than it was decades ago?

Yes, it is. Are there still serious problems? Absolutely. And at least from our perspective, and I think this comes out in the book, policing by its nature is something that if it is not paid attention to by the public and it doesn’t have checks, it runs amok. And so as a society, we just have to recognize if we’re gonna have policing and we are gonna have policing, we have gotta have the structures in place for it to be transparent and for it to be monitored, and for it to be policed in a way that will keep things in check.

[00:47:09] Simon: And I just wanna say before we go here, we have truly just scratched the surface of what’s in this book. It is incredibly detailed, really well researched and reported and told in, really interesting, compelling narratives that are interwoven into broader policy discussions.

Citations heads will love this thing. There’s a huge number of resources, like the notes section is quite large, so yes, obviously deeply, deeply reported and deeply researched. Cannot recommend it enough. The book, again, is “The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Coverup in Oakland.”

Thank you so much for coming on Darwin and Ali and Chris to Rights This Way.

[00:47:55] Darwin: Thanks for the discussion.

[00:47:56] Ali: Thank you so much.

[00:47:57] Chris: And thanks Allie and Darwin.

[00:48:01] Simon: Thank you for listening. You can find out more about everything we talked about today by visiting And you can follow us at NYCLU on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you have questions or comments about Rights This Way, you can email us at Until next time, I’m Simon McCormack.

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