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Oakland Police may be on their Own

As police prepare to evict Occupy encampment, many outside agencies say they don’t want to help

By Shoshana Walter

November 10, 2011

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Thursday, a man was shot and killed at Frank Ogawa Plaza, feet away from the Occupy Oakland encampment. Almost immediately after the shooting, the protesters tweeted, “This was unrelated to the occupation.”

Members of Occupy Oakland may have been concerned that the shooting could precipitate a police raid, something they have been bracing for, as City Council members have demanded the immediate closure of the camp. Even Mayor Jean Quan, who allowed protesters to set up another encampment soon after authorizing a raid on the encampment last month, is calling for protesters to leave peacefully.

“Tonight’s incident underscores the reason why the encampment must end. The risks are too great,” the mayor said in a statement Thursday night.

Oakland police have begun to plan another eviction operation, but it appears that this time, they may not be able to rely on other law enforcement agencies. Quan’s indecisiveness has frustrated many agencies that provided mutual aid during the eviction and two subsequent demonstrations. Some of the agencies say they cannot afford to send more police to Oakland, when their own departments are understaffed — and especially if the city is going to allow protesters to return to the camp.

“There are some chiefs and some city councils that I think are upset with having to keep sending officers to Oakland,” said Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. “And their point is: ‘Why are we sending people there when their own mayor can’t make a decision on what to do?’”

The Sheriff’s Department told Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan Wednesday they will charge $1,000 per deputy for a 12-hour shift. Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said his deputies would only come in for free if the situation prompted an emergency.

“After we assisted Oakland in removing the occupiers who were unlawfully camping in Frank Ogawa Plaza, the government officials allowed them back into the plaza and allowed them to resume camping,” said Ahern. “They’re trying to allow people the right to free speech and it’s a very difficult line that we’re dealing with here. But once they allow it, then they have to understand . . . it’s no longer an emergency.”

Oakland police officers say they understand why other departments are reluctant to help. During a confrontation Nov. 3, demonstrators dressed in black clothing, wearing masks and bandanas, set fire to homemade barricades, threw firecrackers at police and smashed the windows of downtown businesses.

“No one wants to come back,” said one police supervisor. “They sustained injuries, they spent all this money on overtime. We used them for nothing.”

Oakland had already spent more than $1 million on cleanup and police response to the Oct. 25 protests; that figure will increase substantially when the city tallies the costs for the massive demonstration and clashes on Nov. 3. Meanwhile, some neighboring police agencies have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on overtime and equipment.

Of the 17 agencies that responded to the call for mutual aid on Oct. 25, six that replied to Bay Citizen inquiries have spent a total of $425,000, a conservative estimate. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has spent upwards of $250,000, according to a department estimate, while the Berkeley Police Department and San Francisco Sheriff’s Department have spent more than $120,000 combined, according to preliminary estimates. The numbers for those agencies alone, according to police department officials, are likely to go higher.

Oakland police officers, unsure of which agencies they can rely on, are bracing for what they believe will be an inevitable showdown with protesters, who are preparing for a fight.

“We’re going to defend the camp,” said protester Brooke Anderson, who was arrested during an Oct. 25 confrontation with police.

As the encampment enters its second month and the city’s costs rise, Quan is facing more pressure to take action.

On Wednesday, City Council President Larry Reid and four other council members, along with business and religious leaders, attempted to stage a news conference at Lake Merritt to call for the immediate closure of the tent city. A swarm of protesters chanting, “We are the 99 percent” interrupted the event. The council members yelled back, “Occupy Oakland must go.”

On Thursday, Reid said some council members wanted to schedule a “no confidence vote” in the mayor, but it’s unclear whether such a vote, which has no legal impact, will make it onto the council’s agenda.

Quan has also lost key support staff. Nathan Ballard, a democratic strategist and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s onetime chief of communications, decided to end his $20,000 contract as a consultant to the mayor’s office after Quan allowed the Occupy protesters back in the plaza. Ballard is not billing the city for any of the work he had done, including an Oct. 21 meeting during which Quan, City Administrator Deanna Santana, police Chief Howard Jordan and other police officials discussed the imminent police action. City Hall sources said Ballard grew frustrated when Quan would not listen to his advice.

Ballard told The Bay Citizen on Thursday, “Nobody cares as much about the city of Oakland as Jean Quan. And her intentions are good, and I wish her well.”

But he said that Quan needed to do a better job of communicating during the protests. Quan was in Washington, D.C., the day of the eviction and flew back to Oakland that night as the marches were beginning. When she landed, she called reporters to find out what was happening.

“It’s important to have regular communication with your constituents when you’re in a crisis. Daily briefings are important. Press releases are important. Bulletins are important,” Ballard said. “Your constituents deserve real-time information when there’s violence on the streets.”

On Thursday, Quan canceled her weekly media briefing, because City Hall offices were closed due to budget cuts.

After police first evicted the encampment early in the morning of Oct. 25, protesters regrouped and began marching in the street later that day. During those demonstrations, there were several tense confrontations between protesters and police. Television cameras captured officers firing what appeared to be flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets into the crowd. Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull during the clashes. The incident, which is still under investigation, drew worldwide scrutiny of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics.

That has made other departments think twice about sending police to Oakland.

“We’re not authorizing people to do that kind of stuff. Not in our name,” said Maxwell Anderson, a Berkeley City Council member, during a Tuesday night City Council meeting about the mutual aid agreement.

The allegations of excessive police force have raised questions about how the mutual aid system works.

Many of the 17 agencies that responded to the department’s calls for aid that day and night agreed to help on the condition that they be allowed to follow their own policies on the use of force, which may have involved nonlethal munitions that are not in OPD’s repertoire: flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets. It is still not clear which agencies were responsible for using those devices.

Furthermore, while some agencies received a copy of the department’s use of force policy, none of the agencies interviewed by The Bay Citizen received a copy of the department’s operations plan for the night or the department’s crowd-control policy, which strictly forbids the use of rubber bullets, stun guns and stinger grenades, among others.

Defense lawyers, including the mayor’s own personal attorney, Dan Siegel, said they are likely to pursue litigation against the city for excessive use of force. So far, no protester has filed a lawsuit against the city, but an indemnity clause in the countywide mutual aid agreement releases the Oakland Police Department, or the agency requesting help, from liability during a police operation, and dictates that individual agencies are responsible for their own use of force, placing less of a burden on the the department to answer for other agencies that may be using excessive force.

“What that does is creates an incentive unfortunately for the OPD not to be scrupulous,” said Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, who has petitioned the department for access to public records related to the use of force investigation. “The indemnification clause removes the incentive one would want to see in place to encourage OPD to ensure that everyone present in a major enforcement action is abiding by gold standard rules.”

Cities and counties say it’s not clear when or whether they will be reimbursed for the costs of sending officers to Oakland.

“It’s very expensive,” said Lt. Dave Villalobos of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department, which was still tallying department costs. “It’s very disruptive not only to our lives but to the agency. If an officer is not on his beat or on patrol or a deputy is not on patrol or in the jail, then someone either has to replace him on overtime, or they have to go short. Because those bodies are in Oakland.”

Oakland council member Libby Schaaf said she understood why many outside agencies are “wondering if their resources are well spent.”

“I think it was a mistake after we expended the resources to clear out the camp, to allow the tents to come back. And I think that the agencies that assisted us in that effort are understandably confused,” she said.

While Santana, the Oakland city administrator, says the state will reimburse outside agencies for their expenses, state officials say Oakland has not taken the appropriate steps to ensure that.

“There have been very few conversations, if any, with the city,” said Jordan Scott, a spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency.

In order to be considered for reimbursement from the state, Scott explained, the city must first declare a local emergency, then petition the governor to declare a state of emergency.

“They would then be eligible for a certain level of reimbursement,” Scott said. “But at this point, none of that has come through. We’re not going to get involved.”

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