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Oakland Mayor and Chief Share Uneasy Alliance

 
After drama surrounding Batts' potential departure, he and Quan patch up their differences, but tensions remain

quanbatts01During a news conference at Oakland City Hall on Monday, Anthony Batts, the police chief who recently applied — unsuccessfully — for the same position in San Jose, was asked if he intended to stay at the helm of the embattled Oakland Police Department.

“I’m being perfectly honest,” Batts said, as Mayor Jean Quan sat beside him. “That’s something we’ll be sitting down this week and discussing.”

Quan then added, “Notice he didn’t answer your question.”

Both officials were smiling, but the stilted exchange — at an event choreographed to show unity between two of Oakland’s most powerful officials — underscored the tensions that have rattled city government during Quan’s first month in office.

On Friday, Batts announced he would stay in Oakland. In a news release he said he was “ready to roll up my sleeves and get back to work.”

But the fact that Batts — considered a rising star in law enforcement circles — had been considering leaving Oakland barely 18 months after he arrived from Long Beach as the highest-profile police chief in recent memory, shocked the city and was a strain on the new mayor.

After Friday’s announcement, Batts and Quan, accompanied by a group of reporters, walked the streets of West Oakland in a show of solidarity.

Acrimony between the city and the police department began brewing long ago, according to interviews with city and police officials, as well as Chief Batts and Mayor Quan.

Batts acknowledges that the dismal state of the department — and the political battles that awaited him — frustrated him from the moment he took the job. At the same time, Quan, a pugnacious former community activist, alienated many officers during her mayoral campaign by attacking former state Sen. Don Perata, her pro-law enforcement opponent, who had promised more money for the police.

The combination of Batts’ open longing for a quick exit and Quan’s perceived antagonism toward the police has undermined morale among department rank-and-file, according to officers, and sowed distrust between the new mayor and the police chief.

The situation has troubled many people who believe Oakland, with its myriad challenges, is ill served by the bickering.

“This is definitely a distraction that we don’t need,” said Jim Chanin, an Oakland civil rights lawyer whose suit against the city over officer misconduct in 2000 led to court-ordered reforms.

Chanin said the recent drama surrounding Batts was “not good for him, not good for the city, not good for the police department.”

For years, Oakland has had a revolving door of police chiefs. Quan’s predecessor, Ron Dellums, hired Batts in 2009 and gave him a three-year contract in the hope of ensuring continuity. In an interview last week, Batts indicated that his decision to stay relied, in part, on the city’s taking a different approach.

“My luxury is that I don’t have to stay,” he said. “I stay because I want to and I can make a difference and I can help people. But it has to be more than a game plan. It’s got to be more than the political stuff.”

Batts said he was caught off guard by the depth of the problems in Oakland. As one of his first moves, he said, he surveyed the department and discovered that 92 percent of officers neither trusted nor felt supported by the city.

The chief presented a strategic plan to the City Council that contained what he considered another startling statistic: 40 percent of Oakland residents do not trust the police. He told the Council that he needed 925 officers to execute his plan.

As of last week, Oakland employed 656 officers.

Last July, after a long series of failed negotiations with the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, the city laid off 80 officers. Although he was not a party to the negotiations, Batts moved immediately to meet patrol demands, dissolving specialized units and problem-solving officers mandated by Measure Y, a voter-approved violence prevention initiative.

Less than a year into the job, Batts had grown disillusioned, telling people he was frustrated with his command staff and wished he had brought loyal followers with him from Long Beach.

“When I first got here, I said to my executive team, ‘There is so much drama here,’” he said. “It seems like everything here is disjointed. You have so many people rowing boats, but they’re not rowing in the same direction.”

The recent turmoil surrounding Batts left some officers feeling that they were an afterthought to their chief’s priorities and the city’s budget woes.

“I think we’re tired of a lot of things,” said one East Oakland police officer, who asked not to be identified because he was concerned about his job security. “The changing of the guard, the equipment, the budget, the high crime, the high turnaround of officers, the high turnaround of chiefs changing around every couple of years.”

As Batts found himself increasingly distracted by politics and budget cuts, Quan struggled to adjust to her new role as a consensus-building executive.

Her rocky relationship with the police dates at least to last summer, when the department investigated Quan after she and a fellow councilwoman linked arms to separate protesters from the police in the aftermath of the July verdict of a BART police officer charged with shooting an unarmed black man on a station platform.

After Quan defeated Perata in November — an unexpected result aided by the city’s ranked-choice voting system — she visited a lineup of officers on her first day as mayor, but refused to take questions. In interviews immediately afterward, she renewed calls for the police to contribute more to their pensions.

“I love police,” she told reporters. “They’re the ones who spent a couple thousand dollars to beat me up” in the campaign.

Quan drew further criticism last month when she designated Dan Siegel, a longtime friend, as a legal adviser. Siegel is currently battling the city over a proposed gang injunction in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

More recently, Quan initially chafed when Batts assigned a security detail for her more high-profile public appearances. “I don’t need to have my style cramped like that,” she said.

After a radio malfunction delayed the response time during a high-speed car chase and officer-involved shooting, Quan dismissed the malfunction as a “training issue,” while the police complained that the system had been broken for months. She later retracted the statement and said technicians had fixed the problem.

“Some people will call me a bleeding-heart liberal,” the mayor said in a recent interview. “I just need everyone to come together. I actually need everyone to love my cops.”

At Monday’s news conference, Quan outlined a long-term commitment to the police and said she was continuing to visit officer lineups and meet frequently with Batts.

But some remain concerned about the chief’s commitment.

“I think he’s going to have to re-establish his commitment to the city of Oakland in some ways,” Chanin said.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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