October 30 , 2012

If you’re a registered voter anywhere in the country, your mailbox has been swamped this past few weeks with stacks of campaign mailers. It’s hard for any one of them to get your attention, but last week one got mine, for all the wrong reasons.

The mailer concerns the At-Large Oakland City Council race where three candidates, including District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, are challenging incumbent Rebecca Kaplan for her seat.

The mailer starts off with the intent to shock you, with a composite photo on the cover of two women crying over a dead body in a morgue, stating that “Oakland’s people are dying. Our families are crying.” and then asking the question “Where is Rebecca Kaplan when Oakland needs her?”

Open the mailer and you get the supposed answer: “Celebrating!”

Alongside a couple of pictures of Ms. Kaplan dancing and partying, with a drink in her hand and a Hawaiian leigh around her neck, the campaign mailer declares that while over 15,000 Oakland citizens were being robbed, assaulted, or murdered in the city over the past two years, Ms. Kaplan was busy “celebrating her proclamation to make the Mai Tai the official drink of Oakland and her initiative to eliminate the ban on marathon dancing!”

The mailer concludes that “we need leaders who take crime seriously and who work toward serious solutions.”

Only a small notice at the bottom of the last page—beside a closing headline that reads “Rebecca Kaplan: The Party Ends Here”—lets you know you provided this message—the Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA), Oakland’s police union—and that pretty much tells you everything you need to know. The mailer is deliberately misleading and, therefore, disrespectful to all of Oakland, but most especially to those of us who are deeply affected by our city’s crime and violence. One wishes that the leaders at OPOA took political discussion in Oakland as seriously as they want our leaders to take Oakland’s crime problem.

If Oakland police union leaders have differences with Ms. Kaplan on public safety issues, they should put those differences in writing, send them out to Oakland voters, and let us judge for ourselves who we believe is right. But that’s not what they’ve done.

Instead, OPOA has produced a campaign mailer that tries to convince voters that during a time when Ms. Kaplan should have been working and doing something about Oakland’s horrific crime problems, she was out drinking and partying and laughing and generally enjoying herself. To believe that, you’d have to believe that Councilmembers should be working on the crime problem and nothing else 24/7, with no breaks in between, not even for sleep or relaxation. And nobody should be held to that strict standard, not the mayor, not city staff, not even the members of the Oakland Police Department, who we have hired specifically to handle the city’s crime. (After all, we read stories about Oakland police going to places like Reno and Vegas to enjoy themselves all the time, sometimes even getting drunk and disorderly when they do, and getting in trouble with the local law. There are even rumors of uniformed Oakland police officers partying at backdoor clubs on 14th Street in Oakland.) So if Councilmembers act like everybody else and have themselves a good time now and then, we shouldn’t hold that against them, whether it’s Ms. Kaplan, her opponent, Mr. De La Fuente, or any other member of the Oakland City Council.

But that’s not the most important point involving the OPOA mailer against Ms. Kaplan.
In evaluating any debate between the Oakland Police Officers Association leadership and Councilmember Kaplan on issues of crime and violence in Oakland, we have to keep in mind the very different responsibilities of OPOA and city leaders in this area of concern.

What we look to our city leaders to do—including Ms. Kaplan as well as the mayor and the other members of City Council—is to come up with solutions that will permanently lower the level of crime and violence in this city. Those solutions can include hiring more police, holding the police more accountable, or asking the police to do things differently than they’ve been doing in the past. It can mean initiating programs that supplement and assist in what the police are doing, but involve civilian workers. It also means—and this is probably the most important city leader responsibility—coming up with ways to limit and even eliminate those things that lead people to commit crimes and acts of violence in the first place. That can mean anything from funding violence prevention programs to working with formerly incarcerated individuals to help their re-entry back into society to expanding parks and recreation programs and libraries school-city partnerships that give our youth a better shot at making something positive out of their lives.

On the other hand, OPOA has one responsibility and one responsibility only: to represent the members of their union to get the best working conditions and financial deals possible from the City of Oakland. While we hire OPOA members—the police officers—to help prevent crime, solve crimes when they occur, and arrest criminals, OPOA itself, as a union, has no responsibility in that area. It exists only to help its own members, not to help Oakland.

There is nothing wrong with OPOA taking that very narrow position of member-interest. This is what unions are supposed to do, represent their members. But it is something Oakland residents need to remember when evaluating anything the OPOA tries to lecture us on city policy, or tell us who we should elect or un-elect as our city leaders.

Two years ago, for example, when Oakland was facing a $31 million budget shortfall, Oakland city leaders tried to get OPOA to help out by agreeing to have their members contribute to their pensions, as most municipal workers around the country normally do, but Oakland police officers did not. Not only did OPOA leaders refuse to agree to the pension-payment deal, they refused to even bring the matter to their own members for discussion.

As a result, to keep from having to close parks and libraries to solve the 2010 budget crisis, the Oakland City Council was forced to lay off 80 police officers. As a direct result of the police layoffs of 2010, Oakland police were able to keep their sweet, free pension deal with the city for a while, but the loss of the 80 police officers deepened the crime and violence problem that city residents are facing today.

In other words, in the 2010 Oakland city budget crisis, OPOA’s leadership chose the well-being of OPOA membership over the well-being and safety of Oakland citizens.

Keep that in mind when the Oakland Police Officers Association sends out messages to Oakland citizens, advising us on who we should choose for our city leaders, and what policies our city should adopt. Rebecca Kaplan might be the best person to continue in the At-Large Council seat, or we might decide that the job should go to Mr. De La Fuente, or to the two other candidates running in the race. Either way, it’s Oakland voters’ place to decide, and we should be careful taking our advice from police union officials who make their money in Oakland, but whose real interests lie elsewhere.