Eric Holder Seeks Straight Talk on Policing in Bay Area Visit

Attorney General Eric Holder held a roundtable discussion in Oakland Feb. 5, 2015, on how to improve relations between police and the communities they serve. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent co-chaired the discussion that drew dozens of youth, faith, nonprofit and law enforcement leaders. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Attorney General Eric Holder held a roundtable discussion in Oakland Feb. 5, 2015, on how to improve relations between police and the communities they serve. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent co-chaired the discussion that drew dozens of youth, faith, nonprofit and law enforcement leaders. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the Bay Area the final stop on a tour seeking to build community trust of law enforcement after 2014 saw sustained outrage across the country over police killings of unarmed black men.

Dozens of law enforcement leaders from the local to national level met Oakland political, faith and community leaders gathered inside the city’s Federal Building Thursday morning.

Holder joined Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), California Northern District U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent at the front of the room.

“Out of what we have seen in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, other places, there is an opportunity for us to to move forward,” Holder said, “to make better the relationship between law enforcement and the communities that we serve.”

Holder referenced moves the Obama administration is making to address mistrust of police. He said Obama has ordered a review of military equipment for municipal police forces and is pushing for investments in officer body-worn cameras. The department of justice had updated federal racial profiling regulations in hopes local police would follow the example, Holder said, and he referred to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“This is the first time since the Johnson administration that a president has said, ‘I want an examination of local law enforcement,” Holder said.

He promised a candid conversation to the crowd that included youth leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, clergy and some longtime Oakland organizers.

Before that discussion began, reporters and photographers were asked to leave.

Olis Simmons, founder and CEO of Youth UpRising, speaks to Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent Feb. 5, 2015, before a roundtable discussion convened by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Olis Simmons, founder and CEO of Youth UpRising, speaks to Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent Feb. 5, 2015, before a roundtable discussion convened by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Youth UpRising founder and CEO Olis Simmons said the meeting was “all-in-all a good conversation” that touched on what she said are some of the underlying issues behind a strained relationship between people of color and police: implicit bias, structural racism, privilege and a lack of economic opportunity.

“I read it as a swan song, sort of a parting gift from the attorney general,” Simmons said, “to give us a challenge as a community. He can’t come in and save us.”

She said many in the room made very specific suggestions about what should immediately change: There should be dependable national statistics on police misconduct and violence, she said. And a special prosecutor, someone other than district attorneys who work closely with local police departments, should make charging decisions in cases alleging crimes by police officers.

Laney College student and Youth UpRising member Eric Jones said concrete steps for change are more important than the 90-minute talk with the nation’s top cop.

“What steps are going to be taken?” he asked outside the Federal Building. “Eric Holder’s resigning soon, so what more can he do after resigning?”

Still, Jones said he understood Holder’s message that trust is two-sided, increasing police accountability, and having the community’s trust that could improve officer safety.

“On both sides, that’s been a war that’s been going on for years,” he said. “That’s been a social norm in the community for so long — to hate the police, or to not snitch. It’s been a social norm within the police to get the person that fits the description, whatever the description may be.”

Simmons said Holder’s visit was enough to bring criminal justice stakeholders together, but the work shouldn’t stop there.

“It’s not what somebody from outside does,” she said. “The real question is: What are we prepared to do in our own city? Are we prepared to go beyond our comfort zone and build relationships with people that generally we’d have an adversarial approach to? So can the faith-based community and the police community and the youth-serving organizations and the mayor and the federal government all be in a different set of relationships that ultimately are in our collective interests?”

The attorney general continued his Bay Area visit with a trip to San Francisco Thursday afternoon, where he met with police officers and students at the Willie Mays Boys & Girls Club.

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