Ever since we learned that Fire Chief Edmond Rodriguez had taken non-COVID-19 medical leave beginning on March 23, we’ve been waiting for the press release announcing that he has retired and the City is beginning the search for a new fire chief.
The City has not released any update about Chief Rodriguez’s status, and, as far as we know, he remains on medical leave. Based on recent events, however, it appears that there has been a change at the top of the City’s other public-safety department: police.
Fellow Alamedans, meet your new police chiefs: Malia Vella and John Knox White.
Neither Council member, of course, has spent a day on the job as a street cop. But over the last two weeks they have waged a campaign to undermine Police Chief Paul Rolleri, a 28-year veteran of APD and the longest serving member of the department. He may be allowed to keep his official City car, but Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White want to be sitting in the driver’s seat.
The two Council members’ first salvo was to besmirch Chief Rolleri’s reputation as a straight shooter. Then, they persuaded Council to sabotage two of his decisions, one intended to address a long-standing problem, the other intended to redress issues raised by the recent arrest of Mali Watkins. In addition, they got their colleagues to curb Chief Rolleri’s authority to manage the department going forward by requiring him to seek and obtain Council’s advance approval before taking any significant action.
What’s next? Another special Council meeting on June 30, followed by a series of “town halls” and “community forums” in which the Council members will “engage the community” about how the police department should operate. We will not be at all surprised if the outcome of this “engagement” is that the “community” is seen to have endorsed every “reform” selected by Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White to please their “progressive” supporters – which their colleagues then promptly will enact into law.
Ms. Vella led off the accusations of malfeasance against Chief Rolleri. “[W]hile the May 23rd incident [i.e., the arrest of Mr. Watkins] is bad enough,” she posted on Facebook on June 5, “I feel it’s especially important to address the cover up.” What cover-up? According to Ms. Vella, City Manager Eric Levitt relayed information provided by Chief Rolleri that “totally misrepresented what actually occurred” – for which, she said, Mr. Levitt had apologized.
Mr. Knox White then took it to another level – and a wider audience. Three days after Ms. Vella’s Facebook post, he told a KGO television journalist that a cell phone video taken by a bystander at the end of the encounter “didn’t match at all” the “first impression” given to him by Alameda police. “This has shaken my confidence in the leadership that we have at the Alameda Police Department,” Mr. Knox White told the TV journalist.
Now, we suppose that the two Council members may have sincerely believed that Chief Rolleri misled them. But . . .
For Ms. Vella, the Chief has been a marked man ever since November 2017. That’s when he stood before Council and read a statement in which every City department head expressed their “respect and faith” in the “ethics and integrity” of then City Manager Jill Keimach, who had revealed the pressure applied by Ms. Vella and Councilman Jim Oddie to get her to select the candidate chosen by the firefighters’ union as the new fire chief. (Both denied exerting any pressure; the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury upheld the allegation.) This show of support put the lie to the claim concocted by the Vella/Oddie apologists that Ms. Keimach was just an incompetent manager desperately trying to save her job.
Mr. Knox White had no similar axe to grind. But if Chief Rolleri was trying to hide or misrepresent anything, he did so in a very strange way. In fact, it was the Chief who recommended to Mr. Levitt that there be an “outside investigation” of the Watkins incident. (In her Facebook post, Ms. Vella falsely attributed this initiative to Mr. Levitt. In his own statement, the City Manager made the facts clear: “Based on an initial review, a full outside investigation is being requested by the Police Chief. I concur with his decision fully.”) Likewise, it was the Chief who decided, on the same day the cell phone video was posted on social media, to release bodycam footage from each of the officers involved in the incident, a decision he publicly announced at that night’s Council meeting.
Does that sound like a “cover-up” to you?
The offensive by the two Council members against Chief Rolleri accelerated at Council’s June 16 meeting. On the agenda was an item for approval of the fiscal year 2020-21 budget. But when time came for Council discussion, Ms. Vella highjacked the meeting. With the assistance of Mr. Knox White, she had prepared a motion, which had not been distributed or made public beforehand, calling for Council to approve the budget only on certain conditions and then “return for further consideration” in October.
One of the conditions involved vacancies – i.e., positions that had been authorized but not filled – in the police department. Essentially, the motion imposed a four-month hiring freeze. No other City department was subject to the freeze – including the fire department, which also had vacant positions.
Now, this may not seem like a big deal. Indeed, one could interpret it as a belt-tightening move in the midst of the fiscal challenge caused by the coronavirus crisis. But . . .
Just six months ago, Chief Rolleri reported to Council on the extent of the vacancies in the police department – and their consequences for the citizenry. The department has been “struggling for years” to fill all of the 88 sworn positions authorized by Council, he said, and he displayed this chart:
The Chief then ticked off a few of the actions he could take if staffing were brought up to the authorized level: assign more officers to investigations, particularly of property crimes; step up traffic enforcement, especially around schools; and put more officers on the street, including walking beats in the business districts. Homeowners, parents, and business owners all would benefit.
At the meeting Chief Rolleri offered a proposal to boost the applicant flow by increasing incentives for lateral recruits, and he got a positive response from those on the dais. Indeed, one Council member in particular spoke up in favor. She praised the current recruitment program – “we’ve weeded out the best of the best” – and urged the Chief to focus on keeping already employed cops on the job. “We do have really good officers,” she said. “They have a knowledge of the community, and we’re going to need to retain people as much as we need to recruit them.” She then moved to double the bonus for referring new candidates and adopt the Chief’s proposal as amended.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the Council member in question was Ms. Vella.
Six months later, the same Ms. Vella was pushing for a hiring freeze in the police department. Maybe she realized she had been mistaken when she previously lauded the recruitment program and the quality of officers it produced. Maybe she now saw that the program instead reflected “systemic racism.” Or maybe Ms. Vella, the savviest politician on Council, saw an opportunity to cater to the most strident members of the anti-police crowd in a way that might go unnoticed by others in town: In order to “de-fund” the police department, the City doesn’t need to fire anyone; all it needs to do is not hire anyone to fill existing vacancies. Either way, there will be fewer cops – and additional funds available to spend for more worthy purposes.
The hiring freeze wasn’t the only step our two new wannabe police chiefs took to seize control.
A few days before the meeting, pressed by the KGO television journalist to identify reforms he was considering, Chief Rolleri said that he had decided to “restructure” the way in which APD would “deploy our resources and provide services.” Specifically, he was ordering that henceforth cops would focus their attention on reports of serious crimes – such as sexual assault, robbery, or DUI – and not respond to “mental health evaluation calls,” such as the one that precipitated the incident with Mr. Watkins.
In a later interview with the East Bay Times, the Chief elaborated on his decision. Because APD’s resources are stretched so thin, he said, his officers should respond only to reports of actual criminal behavior. This would exclude so-called “5150” cases in which a person believed to be a danger to himself or others may be placed in a 72-hour involuntary hold. “I want to try and cut the discretionary and random contacts between officers and the community,” the Chief was quoted as saying.
Now, one might have expected that any sincere advocate for police reform would have applauded the Chief’s move. Indeed, those who talk about “re-imagining” (rather than “de-funding”) the police often urge steps similar to those suggested by Chief Rolleri: restricting cops to responding to reports of serious crimes and assigning other functions they now perform to specially trained civilians like social workers. But . . .
Applause is hardly what Chief Rolleri got from Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella. This time the Vice Mayor took the lead by telling the East Bay Times that the Chief’s announcement had “blindsided” him. “[C]hanges in policy direction of this magnitude,” he sniffed, “have to include a broad community-engagement process and must involve the city’s elected policymakers in the decision.”
But condemning the Chief wasn’t enough. Among the directives contained in the motion drafted by Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White and presented by her at the June 16 Council meeting were these two (the grammar is in the original):
Staff will return to the council with a proposal for changing any response protocols for Alameda Police. Including any changes announced in May or June 2020, including any budgetary impacts.
All Policing policy changes will be brought to the City Council for approval before implementation. In the instance where changes in State or Federal law or courts rule that change is required, changes can be made and brought to the next available council meeting for ratification and if approved, posted onto the City website.
These mandates had two effects: They effectively rescinded the re-prioritization order the Chief had just announced. And they made sure that he didn’t try again to make any significant managerial decisions on his own. So what will the guy sitting in the police chief’s chair be left to do? He can’t revise any “response protocols.” Nor can he implement any “Policing policy changes.” Maybe he can still fill out the daily duty roster – although we’re not even sure of that.
The question remains to be asked: Why would Mr. Knox White and Ms. Vella push through a motion that had the effect of undoing, and inhibiting, actions that enjoy wide support among police-reform advocates? We’re not psychologists. But we do believe that Mr. Knox White wants to be perceived as the preeminent local mover-and-shaker for the “progressive” agenda. No idea may be good enough unless it comes from him. And we also know that Ms. Vella is up for re-election this November, and it is in her political interest to take credit for any police reforms that Council eventually enacts. She doesn’t just take part in protest marches; she also writes the rules of engagement.
Perhaps we are, as usual, being cynical. But if you asked us who we would prefer to perform the role of Alameda police chief – Malia Vella and John Knox White or Paul Rolleri – well, we don’t have to think too long before we can give you an answer. And we suspect others would come to the same conclusion. We’ll leave you with this story told by Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft at the June 16 meeting:
The Mayor decided to convene a forum at which local young people would tell police officers, face to face, about their experiences with law enforcement. In addition to the police union president, two Alameda cops attended. And so did Chief Rolleri.
The facilitators for the forum were the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Thompson of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, and Regina Jackson, president of the Oakland Police Commission, the group that recently engineered the dismissal of Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. The youth aired their grievances, and one of them tearfully lamented that she was afraid even to be in the same room with police officers. We’ll let Mayor Ashcraft pick it up from there:
At that point the Chief spoke up and said it breaks his heart to hear her say this. He said, “This is the last reason I went into police work. I would never want someone to feel that way.” And he looked at all of the young people around the table who had been sharing their experiences and said, “I am so sorry to all of you that have had these negative experiences with the police.”
At that point, Miss Regina, the decidedly no-nonsense president of the Oakland Police Commission who was sitting at the opposite end of a long table from me, looked at me and said, “That kind of leadership and accountability for others is rare in police chiefs.” . . . [S]he asked me, “Do you know how fortunate you are to have him for your chief?” And Reverend Jackie said it is remarkable to have a chief who says he’s sorry and is sincere about it, and she said, “Trust me; I’ve looked into the face of many of them who say ‘Sorry’ and it’s just words.”
If any of our local “progressives” truly supports Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White taking over the police department because they think Paul Rolleri is such an insensitive clod, have ‘em give “Miss Regina” or “Reverend Jackie” a call. To us, the real significance of the Council members’ actions is that they have taken interference by elected officials with city management to a new low. Maybe there ought to be a Charter provision prohibiting something like that.
Vella-Oddie motion: 2020-06-16 Motion by Vella & DK