Police Chief Anthony Batts has been in office for just over a year, but a lot has happened in that seemingly short timeframe. The city established gang injunctions, Batts lost about 10% of his police force due to state budget cuts.
Though the protests that shook Oakland after BART Police officer Johanes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant happened before he became Chief, Batts has had to deal with the pain of a whole community. And, as well, the pain of families who live in Oakland’s gang-run neighborhoods. Anthony Batts is now into his 2nd year as Oakland’s Chief of Police – a good time to reflect on where the city has come and where it’s going.
Here’s a conversation between KALW’s News Director Holly Kernan and Chief Batts. (Transcript after the jump.)
HOLLY KERNAN: So, it’s been a little over year – it’s fair to say it’s been a pretty easy first year for you?
ANTHONY BATTS: (laughs) That’s an understatement, there hasn’t been anything easy about this job within this 12-month period, I am sorry!
KERNAN: You started by saying that you took over a battered, shattered organization that was over burdened, overtaxed and understaffed you said, in 2009. So, about a year later, how would you characterize your job?
BATTS: I had an organization that I stepped into the leadership role that a lot of the basics were not there. A lot of the systems that any organization, whether in law enforcement or not: communications systems, tracking efficiency systems, just were not there. Not because you had inept leadership here but that you got through some tough times. We have not changed a number of those things, we’ve tried to improve. Efficiency has increased, but there’s still a ways that we have to go. The loss of 80 police officers and the potential loss of 122 more which is looming for January makes it very problematic for us.
KERNAN: You are referring to the fact that the city council voted to close the city’s budget gap in part by laying off 80 officers this summer. Why do you think it was so difficult to come to an agreement to avoid those layoffs?
BATTS: I don’t have the answer to that and I think some of it deals with politics, some of it deals with just the timing. I think the city council has cut a large number of other things within the city prior to my arrival, over the last several years, and it’s gotten to the point where they felt they didn’t have any other choice to address that. The downside of it is that police departments in urban cities like this are economic drivers. If the crime rate goes up, if we’re not able to bring it down, if we’re not able to address a number of things, then you don’t have people who want to invest, you don’t have companies and corporations that want to take advantage of the low prices in rent here in the city of Oakland, so we are an economic driver for the city. It’s almost like a cycle: If you don’t invest in the police department, you don’t drive the crime rate down, the crime rate goes up people don’t invest, you’ve got to lay off more police officers, so it’s kind of a cycle and my job is to try to convince the council that their investment in the police department is a well planned investment that will return dividends, not only the city council but the citizens also.
KERNAN: You also need to convince the voters to some degree there are two measures on the November ballot that would deal with public safety, at least to some extent in Oakland. Let’s first talk about Measure X it’s a $360 parcel tax that would restore funding to the police department longer term. It would also require police officers to contribute 9% to their pensions. So, what do you think about the possibilities of this passing?
BATTS: Well, that’s out of my bailiwick, that’s out of my level of expertise and getting more into political issues. I think you have actually three – you have measure BB which is the restoration of measure Y funds which funded 63 community policing officers, you have measure W, which is actually a phone tax which will equate to roughly $ 8,000,000 that would have the potential of going to the police department, and then you have measure X. And what I am told – and I don’t this for a fact so I’d hate to put information out there – is that several of those are polling fairly well, with confidence, and one is not polling as well as people would think but there again, I am not the expert at that.
KERNAN: Can I ask you something about BB – it would amend 2004′s measure Y so that there isn’t a threshold requiring there to be 739 officers in order to collect those taxes. Is lowering that required number of officers a good idea, in your opinion?
BATTS: You don’t ask easy questions – those are all policy level kind of questions that have been made by my bosses, over me. I think they feel that in order for them to be able to manage the budget, that they need more flexibility in lowering the number of police officers as a whole. From what I’ve done with my studies, based on empirical data and workloads, all of our computer programs tell us, for a minimum, we need 925 officers just to deal with the basic demands of the city of Oakland. So, even if you drop below 739, even if we held at 739, that is far below the 925 that the city needs to keep up with the basic demands, not the ceiling, not the high point, but the bottom, baseline that need to be done for policing in the city.
KERNAN: So, you’re not even at your baseline and yet you’re charged with enacting cultural change in keeping the city safe. How are you dealing with these layoffs and not having the staff you’d like?
BATTS: Well, you have to be smart about it and I think that’s what I’ve tried to do as I’ve come in the door and I have a long list of progress that we’ve made over the last year, things that I’m very proud that the organization has done. But the bottom line is that you have to be efficient, you have to use science in what you’re doing and you have to hold people accountable in getting results and progressing. It was interesting at the beginning of the year, from January to probably about June or July, I had judges and attorneys complaining about the volume of people we were sending to the courts, arrests that were made, making the city safer. Productivity went through the roof here in Oakland. We took off somewhere close to 900 guns, the violent crime rate, although it still stays down, to about 16 %, the murder rate is down, lower than it has been in a number of years, we’re seeing pretty close to a 30% reduction in murder. Our auto thefts are down, our burglaries are down, and I think we’re going in the right direction. So, my answer is, using all the tools in our toolbox, injunctions, talking about curfews, making sure officers are deployed efficiently, based on workload, based on computer programs that we have and just being smarter in how we do police work overall.