New Overseer Could Disrupt Oakland Police Routines
Oakland police officers can expect to see change in their department.
Thomas Frazier, appointed to oversee the Oakland police by a federal judge on Monday, has a reputation as an innovator not afraid to shatter police department traditions.
Frazier is taking on a job that previous chiefs could not, or would not, do: bring the department into harmony with diverse, leftist, anti-authoritarian factions in the community. And he must do so at a time of tight budgets and spiraling crime.
“He’s walking into a tornado,” said Peter Keane, a Hastings Law School professor who served on the San Francisco Police Commission.
Frazier did not respond to a request to comment for this article.
Frazier brought big changes to the Baltimore Police Department when he ran it as commissioner from 1994 to 1999, shuffling detectives to patrol positions and even banning the department’s trademark style of nightstick, the espantoon.
He later served in a federal agency that helped boost community policing efforts around the country.
He brings to the job a familiarity with the Bay Area gained from his steady rise to deputy police chief in San Jose. And he oversaw consent decrees at the Los Angeles and Detroit police departments.
And as a consultant, Frazier criticized the Oakland Police Department for its harsh tactics in the face of the Occupy Oakland protests of 2011.
“Frazier’s background is tailor-made for this job,” said Keane.
The appointment results from civil rights violations that led to a lawsuit and a consent decree in which the city of Oakland agreed to a series of reforms. U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson lost patience with the city’s progress on these reforms last year.
To bring the department into compliance, Frazier will have to address a history of tensions that go back at least to its violent clashes with the Black Panther movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
Civil rights violations came to the surface in the 1990s when a handful of rogue officers, known as the Riders, were accused of planting evidence, beating suspects and falsifying reports.
Such abuses led directly to the 2003 consent decree, but it was “consent” on paper only, at least in the first few years after it was signed, according to John Burris, one of the attorneys behind the lawsuit.
“The culture of the department is fundamentally resistant to change,” he said.
Since then, the department has struggled with a constantly shuffling leadership, Burris pointed out. It has had three new chiefs since 2005. (Coincidentally, one of them, Anthony Batts, is now Baltimore’s police commissioner.)
Frazier will be paid $270,000 a year. Technically he will serve as compliance director, working on civil rights issues while Chief Howard Jordan focuses on law enforcement.
“I don’t think he will see himself as running the department,” said Burris. “I think he will be supporting Jordan.”
But Frazier will have the authority to fire Jordan, and Keane speculated that Jordan will find himself chief in name only.
He said Frazier’s position will be equivalent to a “czar.” “This has never been done in terms of a major American city,” he said. “I would suspect that Chief Jordan is not going to be comfortable. I would think someone in Jordan’s position will be looking for greener pastures.”
To complicate the picture further, Oakland just retained William Bratton, the former New York police commissioner and former Los Angeles police chief, as a consultant.
Some clues about how Frazier might work on the department come from his past, both as Baltimore police commissioner (a position equivalent to police chief) and as director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
Frazier was one of the first, if not the first, Baltimore police commissioner who came to the job from outside the department, said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.
“There’s a recognition that if you want someone to shake things up, you’re going to need someone who is external,” said Ross.
He remembers Frazier instituting efforts to improve relations between the police and the community, such as a 311 non-emergency phone number and police athletic leagues. He also gives Frazier credit for instituting a system for tracking crime statistics, similar to New York’s CompStat.
Frazier’s approach didn’t always sit well with the officers he supervised, according to a 1994 article in the Baltimore Sun.
The newspaper’s description of the department then sounds a bit like Oakland 2013:
an agency dogged by brutality complaints, petty corruption, and internal strife fueled by racial friction. The city was reeling from its second-straight record-setting year for homicides.
Frazier ordered raids on drug-ridden neighborhoods, followed by visits from sanitation crews to clean up the mess left behind, the newspaper reported. The city’s murder rate dropped.
But beat officers criticized him as “TV Tom” for his frequent appearances on television, the paper said. And they grumbled that he didn’t support them when they were accused of brutality.
He infuriated some detectives by rotating them into patrol shifts, according to reports at the time. Frazier defended the practice as a way of giving more officers opportunity for advancement.
In another story, the Sun recounted allegations that Frazier favored white officers over black ones.
At COPS, Frazier encouraged other police departments to institute community policing, a set of techniques aimed at making police departments more accountable, systematic and cooperative.
“You can’t underestimate the kind of experience you get there,” said Ross. “The guy has a big picture kind of vision, unlike a lot of police chiefs and commissioners who have tunnel vision.”