WEDNESDAY MARKED THREE months since Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced LeRonne Armstrong as the city’s new police chief.
Armstrong is an Oakland native who started with the Police Department in 1999 and took over as its chief in February amid a sharp spike in violence in the city, with the homicide rate well above recent years and several hate crime attacks reported on Asian community members.
In addition, the department continues to be subject to federal oversight to oversee reforms mandated in a police misconduct case settlement back in 2003.
The chief spoke recently with Bay City News Managing Editor Dan McMenamin in an interview about what the Police Department is doing to address crime in Oakland, efforts to regain trust in the community, and priorities for the department’s budget.
Q&A with Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Note: interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: You just started as chief in February. Have you had any priorities, first-day or first-month stuff, you were targeting and have you been able to accomplish it? How’s it gone since you’ve taken over these first couple months now?
Armstrong: Well, if you’ve been covering Oakland for a long time, you know how challenging Oakland can be, right? From day one, I hit the ground running, really wanted to demonstrate to everybody that there was a change at the top, that there was going to be a difference at the department.
The first thing I started off was by talking about my three priorities: first, reducing violent crime in the city of Oakland, that Oakland should be a safe city. Me as somebody that was born and raised here, that lives here, I want to live in a city that’s safe, for people in this community to feel like Oakland is a safe place to raise a family, safe place to go out and enjoy the fabulous restaurants and nightlife that we offer here. That really for me is my sort of North Star, making Oakland a safe city.
The second thing is that we’ve been under federal oversight for far too long. That 18 years with our negotiated settlement, it’s a priority for me to get this department into full compliance. And so that’s been my focus.
And then last thing but just as importantly is strengthening our relationship with the community. Obviously with calls for defunding and other things, it’s clear that there’s a need to strengthen this relationship so that people understand the value that this Police Department brings to the community — that it’s much safer with us than without us.
So really that’s been my challenge and from day one I put a new executive team in place, half of my executive team is made up of women, the most diverse team we’ve ever had. My first week I was challenged with spikes in crimes related to our Asian community, so I immediately addressed that by creating a position out of the office of the chief of police called the community liaison officer, and that officer is able to communicate with the community in their own language. We’ve seen tremendous benefits as a result of that, and they have been building relationships with Chinatown, meeting with the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, meeting with our merchants in the area, and also working closely with even community volunteers that are present in Chinatown.
We had a reduced budget as a result of COVID, the city of Oakland faced some financial difficulties, and that forced us to not only make cuts in the Police Department but all departments across the city. And it decimated our specialized units, we didn’t have a sideshow detail anymore. We had reduction in staff in our Ceasefire teams, our traffic officers … so that meant we had to come up with new strategies. One of the things I did was reorganize the department’s focus on violence to create a new violent crime operations unit where I centralized some of the department’s resources to be more focused on violent crime.
You know it’s been a bunch of changes I’ve made since I’ve been in office. I will say that crime is still a challenge, we currently sit at 45 homicides, a 181 percent increase; we had 16 at the same time last year.
Question: So what do you think the reasons for that are? Are you identifying what some of the causes might be for the spike in crime?
Armstrong: Our Ceasefire strategy has been our primary strategy for violence reduction for many years. The pandemic meant we could no longer practice Ceasefire like we had done traditionally, which centered around direct communication. We couldn’t do call-ins, which is the foundation of Ceasefire. We couldn’t do what we call custom notifications, which are one-on-one messages with those at the highest risk of being involved in violence, whether it’s committing a shooting or being the victim of the shooting.
Our most-vulnerable communities were already being impacted by COVID, but now they’re being impacted by violence. And so recognizing people have lost jobs, people have lost income, people have lost housing — all of these things are contributing factors. Also, you’re dealing with the fact that everybody is at home now, for a year, something people hadn’t experienced. Kids are out of school, communities are compressed because of “everybody stay home” orders, and I think tensions can be high.
We’ve seen violence occur, both group and gang violence has increased, but we’ve also seen sort of community violence increase, people’s response to conflict has been to pick up firearms and use them. What we would traditionally see as a non-violent conflict has resulted in a violent response. We know COVID is having a tremendous impact in multiple ways, it will be interesting as they study this when we come out of this, what are the overall impacts. But we’ve definitely seen the impacts that it’s having in the city of Oakland.
Question: You’re the first Black chief born and raised in Oakland. Do you think that helps, having an Oakland native lead the department? I think the count was something like 12 acting or interim chiefs in 12 years, it’s been kind of a revolving door. Do you think maybe having some stability and someone from the city itself will help calm things down?
Armstrong: Yeah, that’s what I’ve seen. My team and I have been walking in communities across the city, and everywhere we go, I’ve been welcomed with open arms and well-received by the community and I think that matters. I spent my entire career working with the community, being accessible to the community. Me being in this position has just opened up an opportunity for people to believe there’s going to be change, to feel like there’s someone at the seat that they know and are familiar with, but also feel like someone that understands their problems, that understands the circumstances that they face. But they know I have the compassion, I have the heart and that I care about what’s happening in our community, and that matters to people.
“Me being in this position has just opened up an opportunity for people to believe there’s going to be change. … (T)hey know I have the compassion, I have the heart and that I care about what’s happening in our community, and that matters to people.”Chief LeRonne Armstrong
There’s a lot of people that come into this position with the idea that ‘I want to be the chief of Oakland, and it’s a great job and a high-level position,’ but it takes more to be an effective chief in the city of Oakland, I think you actually have to care, you actually have to be on the ground, with the people, connecting with the people to build trust, because you’re not going to get anything done in the city if they don’t trust you.
Question: You mentioned how COVID has affected everything as far as crime. How has it affected the day-to-day routine of officers, are they pretty much all vaccinated? Have there been some hesitant to get the vaccine, or early in the pandemic hesitant to handle a case if it’s going into a home where someone might have COVID?
Armstrong: Initially, we wrestled with the same fears that everybody wrestled with, the unknown of what’s going to happen if I go into somebody’s home. We’ve been constantly adjusting, our officers, the vast majority of them have been vaccinated, which is good. We worked with the mayor and governor to open up opportunities for our officers to be vaccinated at the Coliseum site as well as the Alameda County site. So we’ve encouraged the officers, but not only our officers, our professional staff, to all be vaccinated because we’re going to be in this building, going to be in environments around each other.
I want to also recognize the Police Commission, our Oakland Police Commission, actually advocated that officers be vaccinated, that we be pushed to the front of the line because officers are going out there every day, coming into contact with community members and they should feel safe. So really appreciate them stepping up as well, and the mayor has been tremendous. From the outset, we were the first department that was given access to COVID testing, that was really her working closely with the state to make that offer to us. We’ve also had a lot of donations, even from community members, of PPE. People have brought in masks, sanitizer. That’s the story that’s not being told in the community, that silent majority of people that actually care about their officers, and want to see them actually not be infected with COVID, want them to be healthy so they can come out and do their jobs.
Question: Another consequence of COVID is the rise in attacks on Asian community members. I know you mentioned some of that, but are there certain things you’re doing like increasing patrols in Chinatown?
Armstrong: The Chinatown liaison officer was really critical to begin to change that dynamic. We’ve increased patrols in that area, brought in our command post and posted that in Chinatown as well. But most importantly, we’ve opened lines of communication with our Chinatown community. I think that’s where we’ve seen the biggest gap, we weren’t getting Chinatown residents and community members to actually report crime. We’ve now created a hate crime tips line for our Chinatown community. We’ve also partnered with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for the creation of their hate crimes task force, which is also not only working with the department about our hate crime investigations, but they’re also charging those investigations, educating the community on how to report hate crimes. So I think it’s just a combination of resources and support that we’ve put into the Chinatown community. And we’ve seen over the last month and a half, a huge reduction in crimes in Chinatown.
Question: You mentioned the court monitor, and there’s issues of transparency, and with the state of police affairs and “defund the police” campaigns, so what do you think the department can do to get more trust in the community among people that are still calling for the department to lose funding compared to its current status?
Armstrong: I just think that we’ve got to do a better job of making sure we’re transparent with the community, that we are letting the community know that this department has been committed to reforms; that we have been one of the most progressive police departments in the country; that we have pushed for initiatives that have reduced overall stops by 60 percent over the last four years, particularly in the African American community. And so that was intentional, that has really been the department’s effort to reduce our footprint, to stop over-policing in certain communities.
Also, we practice a thing called intelligence-led policing, which essentially requires officers to be focused, laser-focused, on those involved in violence as opposed to just making stops. One of the things we are excited about is we’ve emphasized de-escalation, and that’s led to a huge reduction in officer-involved shootings. Some data that was just released actually shows the Oakland Police Department has the lowest officer-involved shooting rate of any department per 10,000 arrests. That’s an intentional effort on the behalf of the department, to better train our officers and emphasize de-escalation. While we see all these incidents happening nationally, we should all find some solace in the fact that the Oakland Police Department is seeing our numbers go in a different direction, that we’re using less force and not more, that we’re seeing less fatal interactions between Oakland police officers and community members.
One of the key things that’s been challenging for us in this pandemic is the increase in sideshow activity. It’s just something we hadn’t seen to this degree; and with the cut in resources, for several months we were unable to address it at all. When we talk about the defunding, over time, I think the politicians in our city, the council members, have actually recognized the community’s call for more sideshow-related enforcement. So they reallocated dollars to the department three weeks ago to increase sideshow enforcement because of the loud outcry from our community. These things are so violent, not only are they taking over intersections, even in residential areas, they’re leading to gunfire consistently. Now that we have really reinvested in our weekend deployment, we’re seeing an increase in arrests, in tows. This is our effort to say that with the proper resources, we can address this issue of sideshows.
Question: So last question, you’ve talked a bit about the funding, when the City Council will be doing its next round of budget discussions, are there certain things you want to prioritize? And then the council is also discussing the MACRO (Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland) program, so can you just talk about priorities and thoughts on MACRO?
Armstrong: Our priority is the resources to address violent crime, sideshows, and compliance with the negotiated settlement agreement. We are in full support of the MACRO program, we believe that if there’s an alternative group that can respond to calls of mental illness, that we would love to move those calls over to that group. The question for us is just when that resource is available to us. We will definitely be open to work closely, and we have been working closely, with the fire department for their development of the MACRO program.
Any additional resource that can open up more time for officers to respond to 911 calls for service is a good thing, not only for the department but for the city. That means that for those that are in crisis, or having an emergency and they pick up the phone and call 911, it’s more likely that we’ll be there sooner than we were.
As I talk about reform, I like for people to understand that in previous years we would do 10 hours a year of firearm training. What I’ve done is really taken away that 10 hours a year of firearms training and transitioned that into 10 hours of de-escalation training, with scenario-based training. I believe that if you take the gun out of an officer’s hand and put them in front of screens to help de-escalate a situation, and actually rely on other tools that minimize the need particularly to use lethal force but force overall, it leads to better outcomes.