Why is Oakland selling our police officers to outside agencies?

So around 10 PM Saturday night, I happened to be sitting in a local bar, enjoying a glass of bourbon and a lovely conversation, when two of Oakland’s finest entered and proceeded to march up and down the room with their flashlights, inspecting all the patrons for cigarettes. They wrote a couple of tickets, issued the bar a warning, and twenty or so minutes later, went on their merry way. Since providing real-time (or even near-time) crime data for its residents is not one of Oakland’s strengths, I couldn’t tell you what else was going on around the city at that time. But historical personal observation and anecdotal evidence have led me to conclude that Saturday night is not exactly a traditionally low-crime time, and I have a hard time believing that there was nothing else those two officers could have been doing to better serve the community at that exact moment.

Now, as advocates of the city’s new outdoor smoking ban (which will have its final passage tonight) are eager to tell you, Oakland residents don’t have to pay for smoking enforcement operations out of the city budget. We get reimbursed for their overtime costs by the County. Tonight, the Oakland City Council will affirm its commitment to using our police for this exact type of smoking enforcement when they vote to accept a grant (PDF!) from the Alameda County Public Health department’s Tobacco Control program to cover police overtime costs for two Oakland Police Officers (280 hours each) and one Oakland Police Sergeant (300 hours) to conduct sting operations at bars and tobacco shops, hunting down indoor smokers and merchants selling tobacco to minors. From November 2006 to May 2006, Oakland’s Alcohol and Beverage Action Team visited 350 locations within the city for these purposes, during which they were able to issue a whopping 28 citations (7 indoor smoking violations, 8 sale of tobacco to minors, and 13 “other”).

Here’s the thing. A police officer is a police officer, and when you don’t have enough of them, whether or not someone else is willing to pay for their time is pretty much irrelevant. Given our desperate shortage of police, and the increasing willingness of the City Council (during meetings at least) to admit that they believe we will never have 803 officers, why on earth are we selling valuable police time to outside agencies that have their own methods of enforcement?

So, whatever. State law says you can’t smoke inside. Fine. Smokers can shiver outdoors, and thanks to a late amendment to the City’s new outdoor smoking ban, they can at least stand under the awning when it’s rainy. Life goes on. I’m not going to defend the practice of smoking inside bars, but I think that the vast majority of Oakland residents would agree with me when I say that this is not a good use of scarce police manhours. If Alameda County Tobacco Control wants to run around busting bars for smoking, they can go ask the Sheriff to do it.

At the same meeting, the Council will pass a resolution to accept reimbursement for the cost for one police officer to be part of the DEA’s Greater Bay Area Task Force (PDF!). I’m less clear on how I feel about this one, since I somehow missed the report and discussion on the item when it came before the Public Safety Committee. On the one hand, large scale drug trafficking is obviously bad, and definitely a problem in Oakland, and I can see how better regional coordination might be needed to address those issues. The staff report explains:

The City of Oakland and other areas of the East Bay face a variety of challenges in drug law enforcement, which encompass almost every aspect of narcotic trafficking. This area is a source, distribution, and transit zone for various illicit drugs, and includes one of the largest commercial seaports in the western United States. The distribution of crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and black tar heroin in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties continues to be the foundation for the establishment of Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO) in the East Bay.

Well, that does sound good. I definitely think we should work on limiting trafficking of black tar heroin. On the other hand, I’ve got to wonder a little bit about how well this task force is accomplishing their professed goals when I look at the list of contraband recovered in 2006 and see:

  • Cocaine: 8.2 pounds
  • Methamphetamines: 58.5 pounds
  • Heroin: .25 pounds
  • Marijuana: 23,140.9 pounds

I’m more than a little bit curious to know how much of that total came from medical marijuana dispensaries and suppliers.

On top of that, the background section of the report notes “Currently, its members include representatives from the USDEA, the Concord Police Department, and the Oakland Police Department.” I have to say that I’m having a hard time reading that sentence as meaning that any other local law enforcement agencies besides Concord PD and OPD are members of this task force, which leads me to seriously question what kind of regional benefits we could possibly getting out of this. A former OPD Deputy Chief complained that former Mayor Jerry Brown’s insistence on joining the task force took needed resources away from gang violence.

So while I can’t say that I know enough about the activities of the DEA task force to have a firm opinion on accepting this money either way, I’m certainly sympathetic to other bloggers who’ve had to ask about such partnerships: Doesn’t OPD have something more important to do? (For those who can’t be bothered to click through: Becks discusses in that post a DEA raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in Hayward that the Oakland police assisted with.) At the very least, I have quite a few questions about the task force and how the task force’s activities relate to Measure Z. I hope that our Councilmembers will ask some of them before they agree to take they money. (As if!)