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If you’ve been paying attention to the workings of the Oakland police department over the past decade, you’ve almost certainly read reporting by Darwin BondGraham.
Before he became The Oaklandside’s news editor in early 2020, he was a muckraking reporter at the East Bay Express, where he and investigative journalist Ali Winston won a George Polk award for their series on the 2016 Bay Area police sex trafficking case.
Between them, Darwin and Ali have done more than just about any journalist in the East Bay to hold Oakland law enforcement officials to account, reveal abuses of power, and follow the twists and turns of the federal government’s 20-year attempt to force OPD to curb some of its worst patterns of abuse and failure to comply with its own policies.
Their widely lauded new book, The Riders Come Out at Night, weaves that reporting together in one place, along with never-been-told stories of brutality, cover-ups, and the mammoth efforts of local activists, whistleblowers within OPD, civil rights lawyers, and other to put an end to the problems.
I sat down with Darwin to ask who in Oakland he hopes will read this book, what his reporting reveals about what it takes to effect real change in OPD and departments like it across the country, and why two decades of federal oversight hasn’t “fixed” policing in Oakland.
You put forward a bold statement in the introduction to the book: “The city of Oakland is the edge case in American law enforcement.” How so?
What my co-author Ali Winston and I meant is that, arguably, more has been done in the city of Oakland to try to reform policing than in any other city in the United States.
That includes efforts that go all the way back to the 1950s. In the 1980s, there was an effort to set up a police review board, and in the 90s, there were efforts to strengthen that board. Through the decades, there have been lawsuits, social movements, members of the City Council, and others who have tried to pass legislation [to reform OPD]. Oakland stands out because if any city could transform its police department, it would be Oakland.
To your mind, where does the story of what’s gone wrong in policing in Oakland begin? What’s the first chapter of that story?
We begin our book with a chapter about the Riders, but it really didn’t start with the Riders, and it certainly didn’t end with the Riders.
[Editor’s note: The Oakland Police Department was placed under federal oversight in 2003 after the city settled the “Riders” case, a civil rights lawsuit brought by 119 people, all but one of them Black, alleging that Oakland cops engaged in a long pattern of brutality and racial profiling, and that some officers even planted drugs on people and wrote false reports.]
Policing in Oakland is like policing in a lot of American cities. It has problematic origins going all the way back to the 1800s on the East Coast and in the South. Really, you go back even further. The origins of policing have a lot to do with slave patrols and maintaining a social hierarchy in those cities.
On the west coast, it’s a little different because police departments were established later. Here, we see the police being used to carry out social control of different types of groups, for example, Chinese immigrants, Eastern European immigrants, and labor radicals.
One place I would really go back to is World War Two and the 1950s when Oakland’s Black population grew enormously, with tens of thousands of African Americans moving here during the Great Migration. The city leadership did not want a permanent African-American population in the city of Oakland. They ordered the police department to conduct policing and maintain the social order by going into West Oakland, a growing Black neighborhood, and conducting a kind of policing that did not respect people’s rights at all and was frequently violent.
For the entire time that you’ve been reporting on problems with police in Oakland, OPD has been under federal oversight, the highest level of “policing the police” that’s available in this country. For people who are new to this issue, help them understand why the federal monitor hasn’t had a more positive impact on the department.
I would say that federal oversight has had a positive impact, and a pretty significant one, on the Oakland Police Department.
When the federal oversight agreement first came about in 2003, the police department was very resistant to it. Sources for this book told us that the police department literally threw that document in a file cabinet for five years and ignored it.
But when they eventually took it out and started checking off the boxes and actually implementing the reforms, some people in the police department began to believe in some of the reforms and think that they could create a better kind of policing in Oakland, and we saw huge advances.
There are a bunch of possible examples here, but the biggest one is a big reduction in the stops of African Americans, especially the kinds of stops that are pretextual, where there’s not really any excuse to pull a person over or stop them and search them. There’s still a disparity, but Oakland has greatly reduced stops that essentially amount to racial profiling.
Oakland police use force a lot less frequently now. That’s also a direct result of the reforms that were mandated under this oversight agreement. So there’s been some progress made.
But your question is, why hasn’t there been more progress? Over the 20 years of this reform program, the police department has made some advances, and then there’s been backsliding, where they’ve fallen out of compliance with some things that they had completed.
The reforms so far have depended very much on who the police chief is at any given time. Do the city leadership and the police chief really believe in these changes? Are they willing to implement institutions that can carry them forward and make reform sustainable? That hasn’t always been the case. So there’s been a ton of lost ground over the years as well.
Your book is gaining tremendous national attention. It just earned a great review in the New York Times. Here in Oakland, who do you really wish would read this book—even if you know they probably won’t?
I hope that regular residents of Oakland will read it, and I hope that they see their city in it.
It’s a negative book in the sense that it examines really deeply ingrained problems in the city. We don’t want the average person reading it to think, ‘These guys hate Oakland!’ because we don’t. We love Oakland. We care about it a lot.
I do hope that a lot of people who live in Oakland and care about the city read it and understand that the critique we’re making about the city, the politics, and the police department is coming from a place of caring about the city and the community.
How do you expect the Oakland Police Department to respond to this book?
The only way that it was possible for Ali and me to write this book was by cultivating a lot of sources in the police department over many years. We had officers, current and former, encouraging us to write this kind of book. So I think some people in the department and some people who have links to the department will appreciate the book.
I don’t think anyone involved in policing is going to agree with it entirely. I do know that some people are going to have a strong negative reaction. I think that’s to be expected. The police department is not a monolith. There’s not just one type of police officer.
I called it a negative book. We’re focusing on problems, but I do think it’s possible to write positive books about policing and police. That’s not what we did. I know there will be people out there who don’t like it for that reason.
Some of the officers we named in the book, who were involved in misconduct cases and had allegations made against them, may not appreciate the lengths we went to obtain records and to tell those stories.
To be a police officer is to be a public servant, and to be a public servant is to be subject to the scrutiny that you’re a government official and your actions are under the color of the law. You’re subject to the scrutiny of the public, and it’s important that the public have a robust debate about what you did or what you’re doing as an officer of the law.
One response I’ve seen—and anticipated—in comments on reviews of your book and on social media is, “What do people expect? Oakland is a dangerous city, and police officers there are underpaid.” What would you say to that?
Police officers in Oakland are some of the best-paid in the country. But, like a lot of public employees, they’re probably not paid as much as they should be to cover the cost of living here.
Being a police officer is a difficult job, primarily because our society asks police officers to respond to a complicated mix of social problems that people with badges and guns who enforce criminal law should probably not be the primary responders to. That’s true in the city of Oakland.
Yes, the city of Oakland is dangerous. It has a high violent-crime rate. In previous years and decades, it’s been even more dangerous. But the people primarily at risk of having a violent crime committed against them are predominantly people of color who live in lower-income neighborhoods. These are the same people who have been [disproportionately] abused by police officers and have had their civil rights trampled on by police officers.
I just don’t see how anyone could think that treating those communities with disrespect and throwing out their constitutional rights is a reasonable position to take simply because one is concerned with violent crime.
Making policing better and restraining police abuses doesn’t mean that police are going to be less effective at fighting crime. In Oakland, we’ve seen periods of time when the police department made positive strides toward compliance with their reform program, and at the same exact time, violent crime dropped.
We’ve also seen periods in Oakland and other cities where violent crime was increasing, and politicians called for a more heavy-handed, aggressive, militaristic style of policing, but crime still went up—and we ended up with a mass incarceration problem.
Lots of people in Oakland and beyond want to believe that good police officers can bring about an end to appalling shootings of unarmed civilians and other horrific acts. Basically, that the system can fix itself. Is it fair to say your book takes a 400-page sledgehammer to that way of thinking?
I think it’d be fair to say that. Ali and I set out to write a book where we weren’t going to provide advice about how you fix policing. What we decided to do was just take a really long, hard look at Oakland over many decades and write what we observed and our interpretation of the history.
What we found is that it is possible to reduce the harms that are caused to certain communities by the police and by police abuses, and it is possible to make the police more professional and effective at addressing violent crime.
But it’s only been possible to do that in Oakland when civil society—meaning activists, civil rights attorneys, even muckraking journalists, and others—put huge amounts of pressure on the police department to change and really pull back the curtain and bring all the secrets of the police department out in the light. It’s not a pretty process. But in the end, it has helped transform the Oakland Police Department, and it has led to some positive outcomes in the city.
When you take away that external pressure, problems are going to reemerge.
You’re The Oaklandside’s news editor. You’ve been reporting and writing this book for about three years, and in that time, you’ve been part of the launch, growth, and leadership of The Oaklandside. How have these two efforts influenced each other?
I could not have asked for a better day job while writing a book about the Oakland Police Department than to be the news editor of a publication that’s focused purely on Oakland.
In those several years, The Oaklandside has been able to break and follow numerous stories about the Oakland Police Department and the larger public safety system in Oakland, both by our staff reporters and freelancers. I’ve been able to absorb and learn a lot which was super helpful in the writing process along the way.
I brought to the newsroom an interest—an obsession almost—with reporting on public safety in Oakland. Ali and I had to fight tooth and nail to get some records from the city to produce this book. I’ve been able to bring some of those investigative reporting skills to the newsroom and share them with the staff to help build up our muscle when we really need to pry records loose from the city or do a difficult story that requires some investigative skill. I hope that’s also something I’ve been able to bring into the newsroom.