OAKLAND — The fleet of 120 California Highway Patrol officers who arrived last week on the governor’s orders to fight Oakland’s rampant crime problem was touted by the city’s leaders as a welcome solution in a time of crisis.
But a week later, many details are still unclear about how so many state police officers — the equivalent of roughly a sixth of the Oakland Police Department’s force — will integrate with local law enforcement.
What should residents expect to see from an agency that suddenly occupies a major presence in a city with a contentious history of crime and policing?
Neither city officials nor CHP representatives have offered much in the way of detail. At a meeting last week, the civilian-led Oakland Police Commission had some of its questions answered by city police personnel, but the added CHP officers won’t be answering to that oversight body.
It’s also unclear how long this deployment has been in the works or who first suggested it. At a public event in San Francisco last week, Mayor Sheng Thao said she was directly involved in the process but didn’t clarify whether it was her idea.
Below are some key unanswered questions about the move by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in last week’s announcement described the city’s crime problem as “alarming and unacceptable.”
How exactly will CHP help fight crime in Oakland?
The state’s new Oakland detail will focus on “auto theft, cargo theft, retail crime, and high-visibility, proactive traffic enforcement,” per an email from a CHP representative.
What remains unclear, however, is where OPD’s enforcement efforts will end and the CHP’s will begin and how the two agencies will work in tandem, if at all.
CHP officers have been assigned to Oakland on previous occasions: Six officers and a sergeant came last August to help with a crack down on vehicle theft and sideshows, and a number were deployed in 2021 after Mayor Libby Schaaf asked Newsom for help enforcing traffic laws. But an influx of this scale has rarely been seen before.
What’s also important is that the majority of these officers are not hailing from other areas of California but rather from CHP’s Golden Gate division, which serves as the command center for the greater Bay Area. So at least some of them already help patrol the city’s highways.
But now they’re in Oakland’s streets, and it’s difficult to say which cases will be brought in by their agency versus by OPD — city officials did not provide more details.
How will CHP’s law enforcement work in Oakland be held accountable?
Immediately following Newsom’s announcement, civil-rights attorneys who have sued CHP said the agency doesn’t face the same accountability as local police departments.
CHP has notoriously lagged behind in its use of body cameras, with only 237 cameras having been distributed to just 3% of the force by the spring of 2022. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for an updated number by press time.
That stands in sharp contrast to OPD, where all officers are required to wear body cameras — one of a number of expectations set forth by a longstanding court settlement that allows a federal official to monitor the local police department’s affairs.
CHP is beholden to the California Vehicle Code and not any local entity’s policies. Civilian complaints, as well, will go through CHP and won’t be reviewed by any local officials in Oakland.
“We’ve done a lot of work around the (settlement) trying to get Oakland police officers to act in a certain way. The problem is, other departments like the CHP may not have those standards — in fact, we know they do not,” said John Burris, a civil-rights attorney who pursued the federal court settlement that has kept OPD under oversight for two decades.
Burris helped represent the family of 23-year-old Erik Salgado, who was killed and his girlfriend wounded by undercover CHP officers in June 2020 as he attempted to flee in an East Oakland vehicle pursuit. CHP eventually paid $7 million to settle the civil lawsuit.
Last year, CHP agreed to pay $24 million to the family of a man in Los Angeles who died in police custody and screamed “I can’t breathe” as officers tried to take his blood sample. An agency spokesperson at the time extended condolences to the man’s family.
Annee Della Donna, the attorney in that case, said she’s already working on another L.A. case: a wrongful death lawsuit against CHP over an officer who hit a pedestrian with his agency-issued motorcycle — an incident for which CHP responders initially said there was no wrongdoing.
How will CHP officers manage Oakland’s automated license-plate reader cameras?
A striking revelation amid the arrival of CHP officers to Oakland was that they will take over the installation and management of a camera system that the city had originally intended to oversee itself.
Those cameras — 300 in total — will be in fixed locations along Oakland’s major thoroughfares, recording vehicles’ license plate information to help enforce traffic crimes. But until now, the cameras had not yet been installed.
City officials first confirmed to the Oakland Observer that those cameras will now be managed “most directly” by CHP. On Monday, officials said in an email that the two agencies are “currently collaborating” on the camera system.
CHP won’t be bound to any of the policies governing the use of license-plate reader cameras that the City Council had approved last year.
One of those requirements is that footage collected by the cameras can be retained for only 30 days after. CHP has its own 60-day policy, but it won’t be forced to report to the public its use of the data — another Oakland policy that the state agency can simply ignore.
“These guys have different rules that aren’t aligned with community norms in Oakland,” Brian Hofer of the city’s civilian-led privacy commission said in an interview.