The police are known to curse a lot.
With a soaring homicide rate, rampant gang activity and a shrinking budget, officers at the Oakland Police Department have a tough job — and swearing has long been part of it.
But as part of an effort to transform the department from a traditional one into an agency based on community policing, Chief Anthony Batts is cracking down on bad language.
Several recent cases in which officers were disciplined for profanity have some officers rolling their eyes, highlighting a longstanding conflict within the department between two policing cultures that has come to a head under Chief Batts.
“I’m sorry. I’m not dealing with librarians. I’m not dealing with P.T.A. moms,” said Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, the president of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association. “I’m dealing with criminals, guys who are in San Quentin, guys who are in prison. The last thing I want people to think is that I’m some softie.”
Community policing relies heavily on strong community partnerships to spot and solve crime. While the model has been the nationwide standard for policing for decades, Oakland officers say a history of underfinancing and a contentious relationship with the public have fed into a scrappy and aggressive internal culture, more in line with older models of policing. In 2003, a judge ordered the department to institute reforms after a group of officers, nicknamed the Riders, were accused of planting drug evidence on suspects in East Oakland.
When Chief Batts took the job in 2009, he began to tackle the reforms, which include improving officer discipline, and to work on repairing the department’s relationship with the community. Under Chief Batts, officer disciplinary cases have tripled, but he has met resistance to internal changes among officers unsure of his commitment and leadership.
In one incident, according to officers familiar with the cases, an officer was disciplined after he was caught cursing to himself in his patrol car. In another, an officer guarding a crime scene was disciplined after swearing at a man who turned out to be a city employee.
“I don’t want to say we have a runaway culture here, but I think we have a very traditional culture,” Chief Batts said. “It’s not just expletives; it’s their overall attitude.”
David Sklansky, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the department had a history of embracing the “go-it-alone” culture of the ’60s and ’70s. “It used to be that police forces were overwhelmingly white and male, pretty uniformly and aggressively homophobic, and politically and culturally conservative,” he said. But as departments have diversified and surveillance technologies have proliferated, “police officers are expected to get along better with people now much more than they used to be,” he said.
Demographic and generational changes in the Oakland department have mirrored these trends. According to the police officers’ association, 50 percent of the department’s patrol officers have been hired since 2003. The force is now 20 percent Latino and more than 20 percent black, and department veterans say many officers have college degrees.
“The idea of who is a police officer and what our job entails is changing,” said Sgt. Holly Joshi, a department spokeswoman. “It’s been happening for a couple of decades.”
Cursing is not the only language-related issue that is out of sync with the community policing paradigm. Earlier this month, Thelton Henderson, a federal judge who oversees the federally mandated reforms, blasted the department’s decision to name a summertime sweep of probation offenders Operation Summer Tuneup.
The judge said the department told him the name was chosen because “people tend to fix their cars during the summer months,” he said. But tuneup, it turns out, is a slang term used by officers to describe the beating of a suspect.
Henderson said that asking the court to believe the earlier definition was “akin to a baseball manager who tells his pitcher to throw a bean ball and says he means for the pitcher to really throw a ball of pinto beans.”
Chief Batts told the judge that he also disapproved of the name.
“We’re not at war with our community,” he said. “I need to push that. I have to push that.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.