A week after Oakland police held a news conference to draw attention to Mayor Jean Quan‘s primary crime-fighting strategy, authorities refused to identify eight men they arrested as part of the program or say what crimes the suspects are accused of committing.
Police said that identifying the eight, arrested Aug. 14 and 15 as part of the Operation Ceasefire initiative to fight violence in Oakland, would harm their investigation and could put the suspects at risk of retaliation from rival groups. Operation Ceasefire seeks to curb violence by offering social services and support to members of gangs or cliques.
But law enforcement experts said that refusing to disclose identities for more than a week is not a common practice.
“I would say it is unusual,” said Tony Ribera, a former San Francisco police chief who runs theInternational Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership at the University of San Francisco. “I certainly can’t think of a situation (where I did it), but that certainly doesn’t mean they are doing anything illegal. I don’t know how they are building their cases.”
First Amendment attorneys questioned the rationale for withholding the names of suspects in custody for so long and said doing so can violate their civil rights.
“The very basic rule of law in the United States is that people do not disappear into the hands of police. They do not disappear into the justice system,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael. “It is a fundamental principle in this country that the police have to be transparent about who they have arrested and why.”
Reason for the delay
But police, who promised to release the names next week, said the delay was important.
“We are not going to release the information because it will jeopardize the overall integrity of the investigation,” said Officer Johnna Watson, a police spokeswoman. “We know there are still victims out there and we don’t want to color their judgment.”
The refusal to release identities comes as Quan, facing re-election next year, struggles to demonstrate that she has a grip on Oakland’s crime problem, which recently has included the fatal shootings of a 1-year-old boy, an 8-year-old girl and several adults. She has touted Operation Ceasefire as her major initiative on violence.
Reygan Harmon, the program’s interim director, said last week that none of the eight men arrested had participated in a Ceasefire call-in meeting to explain the program’s carrot-and-stick approach.
But she said they should have known they were on police radar because their cohorts had been warned. Besides offering social services, the program threatens certain individuals with intense police scrutiny if they do not stop shooting.
So it isn’t clear to what extent the eight are part of Operation Ceasefire.
On releasing the names, Quan’s spokesman, Sean Maher, said the mayor deferred to police to “protect the integrity of the investigation.”
Frank Zimring, a professor who studies criminal justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said officials owe the public an explanation of how Ceasefire is working and one way of doing that is to show what happens to perpetrators.
“OK, Mayor Quan; OK, police chief du jour, you tell me what you are doing and how it is working, and you have to tell me in a convincing fashion,” said Zimring. “Eight arrests are a big deal, but what are those eight arrests doing to decrease gunshots in Oakland? And if we don’t know, how will we know and when will we know?”
Program will continue
Interim Police Chief Sean Whent said Thursday that arrests under the program will continue, and he held a news conference to announce more arrests under Operation Ceasefire. But again, none of the identities or alleged crimes of the seven people arrested were disclosed.
An earlier mayoral initiative known as the 100-blocks plan, in which Quan vowed to fight crime in certain areas of the city, fizzled.
Quan turned to Operation Ceasefire last year, but City Hall officials acknowledged last week that the program had not been a high enough priority for the police.
And police said they would change that.
“Ceasefire is focused on the most violent and active gangs, groups in Oakland,” Whent said. “We believe they are responsible for the most crime, and this operation is designed to impact their ability to be able to conduct crime in this city.
“We’re not going to take the pressure off until the violence stops out here,” he said.