By training and experience, Paul Rolleri is a policeman, not a politician.
And that, in the Merry-Go-Round’s view, is why he will no longer be chief of police in Alameda after August 28.
Appointed police chief in 2013, Chief Rolleri made two crucial mistakes during his tenure:
- He led a group of City department heads that publicly expressed their confidence in former City Manager Jill Keimach after her politically powerful foes had begun a campaign to impugn her integrity and competence.
- He put together plans for revising police procedures to deploy a dwindling cohort of officers more effectively and, at the same time, reduce the risk of fractious interactions between cops and citizens.
On their face, neither of these actions would seem objectionable; indeed, both can be seen as displaying qualities one would like to see in a police chief (or any department head): A willingness to stand by a boss unfairly accused, and a desire to lower tensions unfortunately aroused.
The problem was: Both actions pissed off elected officials currently sitting on the Alameda City Council.
By defending Ms. Keimach, Chief Rolleri alienated the two Council members, Jim Oddie and Malia Vella, whose apologists had launched the assault against the City Manager after she had blown the whistle on their attempted interference with the appointment of a new fire chief. And by proposing his own plans for revising police procedures, Chief Rolleri angered Vice Mayor John Knox White, who had anointed himself as the City’s premier architect of police reform.
This unholy trio did not, of course, fire Chief Rolleri. (Indeed, until they get around to amending this section of the Charter, the Council majority had no legal right to do so.) But they could, and did, take (and prepare to take) actions that, under the guise of setting “policy,” so limited the police chief’s ability to manage the department that any reasonable person would prefer to call it quits rather than stay on the job. Originally, the Chief had planned to retire at the end of 2020; now, he has moved up the date to the end of August.
We should hasten to add that Chief Rolleri himself has not blamed Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, or Mr. Knox White for his decision to retire. He’s too much of a class act for that. And we might have remained silent ourselves had we not read the stories, by reputable reporters like Steve Rubenstein and Peter Hegarty, tying the Chief’s decision to what Mr. Hegarty called “widespread public criticism” over the Mali Watkins incident.
(BTW, both stories state, as a fact, that Mr. Watkins was arrested for “dancing in the street.” He wasn’t. Instead, having walked away from the police officer who wanted to continue questioning him, Mr. Watkins was detained for “resisting arrest.” We can understand why a publication like the East Bay Citizen would describe the grounds for arrest inaccurately – it makes the cops looks worse – but we would have hoped for better from Mr. Rubenstein and Mr. Hegarty.
(Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, it should be noted, did not make the same mistake. According to a letter she sent to Chief Rolleri, she based her decision not to charge Mr. Watkins for resisting arrest on her belief that he “should have been free to leave if he did not want to engage in a consensual contact initiated by” the police officers.)
So let’s take a look at the events that led up to Chief Rolleri’s decision to take retirement sooner rather than later.
The statement of support for Ms. Keimach came early on in the Great Fire Chief Scandal.
On October 12, 2017, the East Bay Times broke the story that Ms. Keimach had sent a letter to Council alleging that she had been “approached by elected and appointed officials in Alameda and even at the State level, requesting that I put aside the best interests of the City and select the Fire Chief that has been handpicked by the local IAFF union.” The story identified the local elected officials as Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella.
Immediately, supporters of the two Council members, particularly the unions who were counting on the pair to promote the pro-labor cause from their seats on the dais, circled the wagons. As is customary with certain members of this crew, the preferred method of defense was to attack the accuser.
Right after the East Bay Times report, Alameda firefighters’ union president Jeff DelBono gave an interview to the union’s publicist in which he slammed Ms. Keimach as “delusional” and “somebody that nobody trusts.” Then Mr. DelBono’s wife, Alameda Unified School District trustee (and former Alameda teachers’ union president) Gray Harris, picked up the cudgel during the public-comment period at the next Council meeting. “I’ve heard lots of complaints in the community about the performance of the City Manager,” Ms. Harris proclaimed, “and I’m sure she’s heard them, too.” She went on to lob a host of specific charges of mismanagement against Ms. Keimach, none of which happened to be true.
This proved to be too much for the people who worked for, and with, Ms. Keimach in city government. At the next Council meeting, Chief Rolleri, surrounded by every City department head, went to the podium and read a statement declaring that, “We are here as the city’s executive management team to show our support for City Manager Jill Keimach and our respect and faith in her ethics and integrity.” The City “has been incredibly productive doing the people’s work under the leadership of the city manager,” the statement said, and it then described – accurately – her administration’s track record.
The statement of support was signed not only by Chief Rolleri and Acting Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck but also by Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam, Public Information Officer Sarah Henry, Alameda Municipal Power general manager Nico Procos, and the directors of the City’s finance, human resources, library, public works, information technology, base reuse, community development, and recreation and parks departments.
Nowhere did the statement of support criticize, or even mention, Mr. Oddie or Ms. Vella. But the unanimous vote of confidence for Ms. Keimach made it virtually impossible for their defenders to insist, as Ms. Harris had just three weeks earlier, that the City Manager’s allegations amounted to “nothing more than a bad management ploy to divert attention from the City Manager who hasn’t been doing a good job.” In so doing, Chief Rolleri and his colleagues demolished an argument that – had it been true – might have damaged Ms. Keimach’s credibility in the eyes of the public and of independent factfinders such as the special investigator appointed by Council and the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury.
Did Chief Rolleri’s role in delivering the statement of support for their accuser leave Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella hungry for revenge? We have no way of knowing – but it is safe to say he wasn’t their favorite person thereafter. (And Mr. Oddie, of course, had an additional reason for carrying a grudge: Chief Rolleri had recounted, to the East Bay Times, the City’s special investigator, and – presumably – the Grand Jury, the Councilman’s incredibly indiscreet boast that “there are already two council members who are ready to fire” Ms. Keimach if she didn’t “do the right thing” by appointing the union candidate as fire chief.)
But if Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella were gunning for Chief Rolleri, they held their fire – until Mr. Knox White needed their aid in going after the Chief for interfering with the Vice Mayor’s efforts to lead the police-reform parade.
Ever since he was appointed to the top job, Chief Rolleri had had to deal with a chronic understaffing problem in the department. (As of mid-June, it was down 16 officers from the authorized number of 88.) Initially, the Chief focused on recruiting new or lateral hires, and Council eagerly approved his proposals. “If you need more, come and ask for it,” Mr. Oddie gushed during one meeting.
But the recruiting push wasn’t enough to keep the rosters filled, and Chief Rolleri began thinking about how to make the most effective use of a smaller-than-authorized police force.
Traditionally, Alameda cops were trained to be “pro-active” – i.e., to stop persons based on “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” that they had engaged, or were about to engage, in some sort of criminal activity. That was one reason often cited for the City’s low crime rate. But this strategy required keeping a lot of officers on patrol – and the department no longer had the necessary manpower. Moreover, it led to the types of contacts that could cause friction between cops and citizens.
Chief Rolleri’s idea was to replace this “traditional” approach to policing with an “investigative” model – i.e., to concentrate on developing leads and identifying suspects after a crime had been reported. Implementing this strategy would require shifting officers from patrol into investigations and instructing street cops to focus less on stopping suspicious persons and more on following up promising leads. As a result, the model would reduce the risk of misunderstandings – or worse – between the police and the public.
The Chief never got the chance to roll out the new model in full. But until Mr. Knox White and Council stopped him, he was able to make a start toward putting it into practice.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic created the first opportunity to try out the new approach. Health concerns dictated limiting close-on contacts between cops and ordinary citizens – which the new strategy would do anyway. Accordingly, in early April, Chief Rolleri informed City Manager Eric Levitt that, effective immediately, “I am directing all patrol and investigative personnel to curb/reduce all proactive and self-initiated activity.” In addition, the cops would cease making walking or bicycle stops “for anything other than the investigation of an in-progress crime or crime that has just occurred,” or if the officer “kn[ew] or suspect[ed] that the person has a warrant for a violent felony.”
Then came the arrest of Mr. Watkins and the subsequent protests. Again, the Chief saw these events as providing an impetus to move away from the “pro-active” model. Under the new approach, if a serious or violent crime hadn’t been committed, there was no need for street cops to intervene. Accordingly, with assistance from his command staff, Chief Rolleri decided, on a trial bias, to limit the types of calls that APD patrol officers would handle. Essentially, a draft summary stated, “we will only be responding to calls for service where a crime has occurred, is in progress, or there is an actual threat of violence.”
Later, in a memo prepared for Mr. Levitt at his direction, Chief Rolleri explained the goals of the changes he had made after the coronavirus hit and the Watkins incident took place. The first was “to take some initial steps towards redesigning what policing looks like in Alameda and in doing so, reflect responsiveness while reducing the types of interactions that lead to the appearance of racial profiling.” The second was “to allow the police department to navigate through unprecedented staffing shortages during a period of great change.” The changes “will hopefully signal the community that APD is listening and willing to adapt,” the Chief concluded. “We cannot continue to operate in a ‘business as usual’ mode during this period of time.”
Chief Rolleri made sure to consult his subordinates (i.e., his captains), and inform his superior (i.e., Mr. Levitt), about his decisions. He also asked for input from the police union. But there was one person from whom he didn’t seek advance approval or solicit “expert” advice: Mr. Knox White. And when the Vice Mayor found out about the Chief’s plans, he wasn’t pleased.
The stated cause of the dissatisfaction wasn’t the substance of what Chief Rolleri had done but how he had gone about it. “[C]hanges in policy direction of this magnitude have to include a broad community-engagement process and must involve the city’s elected policymakers in the decision,” Mr. Knox White complained to the East Bay Times.
But the real issue was the timing. Mr. Knox White had joined many other Alamedans in protesting the killing of George Floyd. But after a cellphone video of the Watkins incident surfaced on social media, the Vice Mayor sought to take charge of police reform at the local level. To that end, he demanded an “independent investigation” of the incident (which Chief Rolleri already had suggested and Mr. Levitt had agreed to), and announced that he would be conducting a “town hall” on “police enforcement in Alameda” in order to “hear from our community as we move forward in addressing this incident and ensuring there are no more.” After the town hall, which lasted for five hours, Mr. Knox White informed his Facebook followers that “[w]e have scheduled a special Council meeting” to “hear from the community about this issue” and to sign “President Obama’s pledge to introduce limits on use-of-force” and adopt the so-called “#8CantWait” proposal for police reform.
When Chief Rolleri’s plans for revising police procedures became public, he looked to be usurping the role Mr. Knox White had reserved for himself. If he wasn’t slapped down, the Chief, and not the Vice Mayor, would be the one initiating proposals for police reform in Alameda. Likewise, the Chief, and not the Vice Mayor, might get the bulk of the credit for whatever action ultimately was taken. So much for Mr. Knox White establishing himself as the primary mover-and-shaker for police reform.
And so the Vice Mayor, with the assistance of Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie, took steps to make it clear that Council, and not Chief Rolleri, would be deciding what changes to make to Alameda police procedures. And then, bypassing the police chief, they ordered the City Manager to start making them.
Council was scheduled to vote to approve the fiscal year 2020-21 budget on June 16. But at that meeting Ms. Vella introduced a motion, co‑authored by Mr. Knox White, conditioning approval of the budget on taking authority away from the police chief. Henceforth, the motion declared, “All Policing policy changes will be brought to the City Council for approval before implementation.” Moreover, the motion imposed a hiring freeze; directed “staff” – the police chief wasn’t mentioned – to prepare a “proposal for changing any response protocols for Alameda Police,” and authorized the City Manager to “shift funds as needed” to “cover changes in . . . response policies” that met Council’s approval.
Council passed the motion, but it apparently didn’t go far enough for Mr. Knox White. On July 6, he collaborated, this time with Mr. Oddie, in submitting a referral asking Council to take even more intrusive steps.
Most significantly, the resolution presented by the two of them committed Council to “identifying” up to 42 percent of the police department budget to “reallocate towards programs that support public health, wellness and resilience.” As part of this “reallocation,” the resolution directed the City Manager to
- “begin an outside audit of the activities of the Alameda Police Department”;
- prepare a “workplan” for a “top-to-bottom change in the community service culture in the Alameda Police Department”;
- develop and implement a “crisis intervention and management program to divert calls for emergency services away from the police” as well as a “homeless intervention and support program”; and
- “restructure” the traffic safety enforcement division.
The resolution then delved even deeper into operational matters. It directed the City Manager to “develop a use of force continuum including tactical communications and conduct a process for non-police review of all instances involving physical contact and use of force as well as a monthly random audit of Alameda Police Department’s bodycam footage for traffic stops and non-use of force arrests,” and to “develop, implement, and make public, machine-readable data and a statistically valid monthly report that tracks arrests, citations, and traffic stops on a monthly, quarterly, annual and three-year rolling average to identify disparities in enforcement.”
To Mr. Knox White’s chagrin, his colleagues didn’t pass the resolution when it was presented on July 14, but they will get another chance at a special meeting scheduled for July 28. If they do vote in favor, Mr. Knox White will have achieved his objective: the motion passed on June 16 clipped the police chief’s wings; the resolution, if passed, would rip them off altogether. Forget about being able to soar; now, he won’t even be able to get off the ground. And in the meantime Mr. Knox White will be free to fly overhead with his flock of followers trailing behind.
Can anyone blame Chief Rolleri for deciding to retire now rather than stay on the job for another six months?
As a result of Chief Rolleri’s retirement, both of the top public-safety positions in the City will be vacant. (Fire Chief Edmond Rodriguez remains on indefinite non-COVID medical leave.) Ordinarily, we would sympathize with the additional burden being placed on City Manager Levitt, who has the sole legal authority under the Charter to appoint replacements.
But then it occurred to us: With the current Council, does the City really need to select a new police or fire chief at all? Why not have Mr. Knox White, Ms. Vella, and Mr. Oddie split up the positions among themselves?
Ms. Vella can take fire. Since former IAFF Local 689 president DelBono now holds the position of Acting Deputy Fire Chief, all Ms. Vella would need to do is check her text messages and emails hourly for directives from him. She already has shown her willingness to follow Mr. DelBono’s orders – indeed, she fell readily into line with his plan to get his predecessor as union president appointed fire chief – so it will just be business as usual for her.
Mr. Knox White can take police. He appears to be brimming over with “progressive” ideas – not all of them cribbed from the ACLU or Amos White – about how to fund, staff, and operate a police department. And the unpalatable trappings of the position can be eliminated for his benefit: he can ride a bike instead of drive a police car and wear a Panama hat instead of a uniform cap.
If the fire and police jobs go to Ms. Vella and Mr. Knox White, what’s left for Mr. Oddie? We were at a loss to figure out a City department for him to take over until we learned that Public Works Director Liam Garland recently had resigned to take a similar job in Berkeley.
During the 2018 campaign, a mailer supporting Mr. Oddie touted him as a “Traffic Buster” responsible for “repav[ing] miles of streets” and “repair[ing”] miles of sidewalks” across town. If that’s true, the solution leapt out at us: who could be better to replace Mr. Garland than Mr. Oddie? And if he assumes the role, he can go back to shoveling tar and pouring concrete; that would be better for Alamedans than the stuff he usually spreads around.
June 16 motion: 2020-06-16 Motion by Vella & DK