March 13, 2013

Who would have known, after all his blow and bluster over the years on crime and violence in Oakland, that our old friend Chip Johnson would turn out to be such a cheap date?

For years, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, who concentrates on Oakland matters, has been loudly criticizing Oakland leaders for what Mr. Johnson describes as inaction, failed action, or not enough action on this issue.

Sometimes, all you need to do is read the headlines of his columns to know where Mr. Johnson is coming from.

Leadership Sadly Lacking In Wake Of The Killings” August 7, 2007; “It’s Time For Dellums To Get Real On Fighting Crime” October 16, 2007; “Oakland’s Mayor Politicks As People Are Killed” February 15, 2008; “Mayor Wrong On Cause Of Crime” August 19, 2008; “With City Under Siege, Mayor Just Talks” August 26, 2008

Mr. Johnson was particularly hard on what he characterized as former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellum’s ineffective crime-fighting efforts, such as in a December 7, 2008 column entitled “Violence Is Why Oaklanders Forsake The City.”

“What should be particularly appalling to residents … are the absolutely futile, and feckless, attempts of Mayor Ron Dellums' office to spin an infinitesimal decline in some crimes this year as a positive trend,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “Last month, the mayor's office issued a news release to trumpet the city's fight against crime, which had resulted in the city being named the nation's fifth most violent city, down from No. 4 a year ago. That's like a football coach at one of the nation's 119 major college football teams crowing about moving up the preseason poll to No. 114 - when his team was ranked No. 115 last season. That won't get you a ballgame or national TV exposure, and might make some colleagues question your thought process.”

Mr. Johnson was relentless in attacking Mr. Dellums on the crime-and-violence issue, but he has been hard on the former mayor’s successor as well. When Ms. Quan and police and other city officials held an anti-crime press conference on the street near 64th and International in January, Mr. Johnson wrote, “The unvarnished truth is that gun violence is tearing this city apart, and there simply aren't enough local police officers to stop it. It's an undeniable fact punctuated daily by gunfire and tragedy. Despite leaders' attempt to present a unified front and lay out strategies to address the violence, they offered no new solutions and showed no willingness to change their approach to the problem.” (“Oakland Leaders Have Lost Grip On Violence” January 14, 2013)

Mr. Johnson being such a tough and persistent critic on this issue over the years—in fact, the city’s response to its crime and violence problem could be called Chip Johnson’s signature issue—I often wondered what type of City Hall action it would take to satisfy him and win his praise.

This month, we found out. Just hire some big-name consultants.

In a March 7 column entitled “Oakland’s Crime Plan Off To A Good Start”, Mr. Johnson was bubbling over in his praise for Oakland’s hiring of the Strategic Policy Partnerships (SPP) consulting firm to develop a “short-term crime fighting strategy and citywide reduction and community safety plan” for the city.

To get the full flavor of it, you have to quote extensively.

“Hail to the chiefs,” Mr. Johnson wrote. All of them. Oakland's most ambitious crime-reduction plan is gearing up to full throttle. The Police Department this week rolled out the big guns, holding a news conference Wednesday to introduce William Bratton, a celebrated law enforcement expert credited with implementing changes that drastically reduced crime in New York and Los Angeles when he headed the police departments in those cities.

“But Bratton didn't show up at the news conference alone,” Mr. Johnson continued. “His posse rode in with him. Trailing right behind him was a cadre of former police chiefs - all of them part of the Strategic Policy Partnership, a consulting firm headed by Robert Wasserman, a former police chief in Houston, who has carved out a name for himself as a turnaround specialist for dysfunctional, obsolete and underperforming police departments. The chiefs strode into the news conference at Oakland police headquarters well dressed, well coiffed - and tight-lipped. In another era, they could have been wearing cowboy hats, dusters and cradling rifles in their folded arms. However you want to envision it, the message they sent was clear: ‘We're here to clean up this town.’”

Coupling the SPP consultant contract with the federal court appointment of an Oakland Police Department overseer to ensure that the terms of the Allen v. Oakland police misconduct lawsuit settlement are followed, Mr. Johnson continued on that “many [Oakland] residents are desperately hoping that this week is the start of a new era here, one where random gunfire doesn’t kill toddlers, where business owners aren’t robbed and murdered, and where four police officers aren’t slain by a wanted felon who should have been in prison.”

In fairness, Mr. Johnson adds that Oakland’s police department is understaffed, and so he concluded that “even if Bratton and his colleagues are able to raise Oakland’s game to make it one of the most effective police departments in the nation, the city cannot claim success until it can replenish and reinvigorate the ranks of its depleted police force. … [I]ts success will be limited until there are enough soldiers to carry out their well-laid plans.”

But Mr. Johnson remains effusive in his praise of Oakland’s spending a quarter of a million dollars to spend three months in the city to write a report on how to reform our police department. Not to bring more police onto the streets. Not to create and run more anti-violence programs. Not to help us understand why Oakland is so violent and its crime rate is so persistently high. Not even to run the police department. To stay for three months and then write a report.

Who would have known it was so easy to get Chip Johnson’s praise on the issue of crime and violence in Oakland? Who would have known he was such a cheap date?