A conversation with Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong
While many U.S. cities have seen an increase in homicides over the past year, Oakland is among the hardest hit. Last year, the city saw its highest homicide toll in more than a decade, with 123 — a tally that excludes 11 deemed to be in self-defense, accidental or otherwise noncriminal, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Several instances of gun violence in the city of 425,000 have made headlines in the past few months: A security guard was shot and killed while protecting a news crew on assignment; a 23-month-old boy was killed in a car while he was sleeping by a stray bullet fired in a gunfight.
It doesn’t seem like things will slow down. The city saw its first homicide in 2022 on New Year’s Day. Even the Times conversation with Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong that took place late last year, and follows this introduction, was delayed because an officer was shot.
Armstrong is a prominent figure in the city’s quest to handle crime. The Oakland Police Department has had four previous Black top cops, but Armstrong is the first born and raised in the city, according to Oaklandside.
During his 22-year OPD career, he has been a patrol officer, sergeant and robbery investigator, among other roles. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State. He also has a master’s degree in organizational leadership.
Before he took his job, Armstrong appeared to acknowledge the city’s issues with violence. In a February 2021 social media post by Mayor Libby Schaaf announcing his hiring, he explained that he wanted to make Oakland “centered around safety,” especially because as a young person he didn’t feel safe while growing up in the city.
In that same video, the Oakland native gets emotional talking about his brother, who was shot and killed in 1985. Schaaf asked how his brother would react to his new gig.
“I think he’d say how proud of me he was, of his younger brother who had a dream and made good on that dream,” Armstrong said before getting choked up.
During the year that he has held his position, he’s had to navigate two thorny situations that started before he took the helm. The first involved nine police officers who were put on unpaid leave after an investigation showed that the group shared offensive content online. Seven of them were suspended for up to 25 days without pay. Two others moved to other jurisdictions.
The second involves the city’s oversight committee, which was established in 2003 to address allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. A judge recently decided to keep the oversight a while longer due to that social media scandal.
Late last year, I spoke with Armstrong about violence in the city, the social media scandal, and how people sometimes treat him, as a Black man, when they don’t recognize him as the police chief.
This is the first of three conversations with California police chiefs of color The Times will be publishing over the next few weeks. The Times is also interviewing recently retired Sacramento Chief Daniel Hahn and Fresno Chief Paco Balderrama. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You took this role right after these really intense discussions about policing. Were you a little bit nervous to, after all those tense discussions, say, ‘OK, here I am as a Black police chief’?
I felt like mentally I was prepared for it. I’ve been a deputy chief for several years. But I think you never sort of understand what it’s like to be a chief until you actually become a chief of police, where all of the responsibility sort of falls on your shoulders. And on day one, everything gets just dumped on you, and all those creative solutions that you thought you had and all of the things that you thought you would be able to do to effectuate change, they just become much more challenging immediately because you start to realize that there’s so many different audiences that you have to speak to in Oakland, so many different stakeholders that you have to get their approval from in order to do anything.
And Oakland is a unique city. It has the strongest civilian oversight body — our police commission — of any city in America. And they have the authority without the need of the mayor or the city administrator to actually fire the chief of police. They also have policy authority. This body is basically a group of non-police professionals: a civilian group. But they have this authority and sometimes may not truly understand all of the inner workings of law enforcement.
I think the dynamic of being a chief and cultivating a relationship with the union is different. I have been a member of the union for 23, 24 years, then all of a sudden you now become the person that the union is talking about, and maybe not necessarily agreeing with. In Oakland, people want immediate positive changes. And in the midst of a spike in violence, people want to see you be able to make the city safer, but that’s much easier said than done.
What has been the most surprising part of your job?
I knew that being an Oakland-born-and-raised chief would be a big deal. But I did not know I was going to experience the wide range of support that I’ve got. So many people have been willing to meet with me and have discussions around how we can work together. As a department that had a really low level of trust in the community, I thought that said a lot because I thought that it’s given us an opportunity to rebuild trust as an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of us.
What is the hardest part of your job?
I have so many people that I have to report to, and that’s challenging. Every large city has a city council or some type of body that covers the city. But in Oakland, everybody has an opinion about policing. We are under federal oversight, to have a compliance director who is essentially the boss. I have the police commission that’s essentially the boss. I have a city administrator who is the CFO of the city. And so that’s a lot of people who have input on the decisions that I make every day. And it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. It‘s just always hard to run an organization when we have to run your decisions through so many people. And so things, when it finally reaches the approval, it looks much different than you may have wanted it to look and so you oftentimes go ‘You know what? That’s OK. No new ideas, no innovative ideas. I’m just going to push through.’
You all have been under that oversight for quite awhile. There has been talk about you all losing it. Are you all ready for that?
I do think that we are ready to transition to a community oversight body that monitors this department and what we’re doing. But I also think that, after so many years, we’ve created a new culture in this department that I believe really respects law, respects community and understands the importance of accountability.
And to that point, I saw a lot of discussion about the whole social media meme scandal. What did you make of that incident and how it was handled?
It is always challenging when you see a small group of people within your organization engaged in behavior that is not in line with our values. And particularly when you have your sexist and racist memes. I must say that no current officers that work here actually created the site or posted any memes. But the fact that we did have people that actually looked at them and may have shared those memes is still very disconcerting because I have made a concerted effort to grow the number of women officers in our department. And this type of thing definitely makes people of color feel like they’re not welcome in this department, particularly African Americans, and so it’s terribly concerning and I’m frustrated by what happened. But I think it happened before I took over as chief. But I will take it as an opportunity to make some changes and be clear about the behavior that is unacceptable and what it will not be tolerated in this department. As a father of three daughters, to see people sharing memes like that is offensive.
You discussed a lot about what the meme incident means internally. But I’m also wondering what it means externally for the public, considering you all might lose this oversight. I’m wondering what message you would want the public to know.
I want the public to know, we take these things very seriously and that we want to create a culture where behavior like this is called out early by members of this organization. So it doesn’t have to reach a point where we have to have some wide-scale investigation. And that’s really what you want for the organization, for people to be courageous. I want the community to know that I’m working on empowering our officers to be more courageous when they see misconduct, right? But beyond that, I want the public to know that we’re going to invest in training so that officers learn what they may think is funny, why it’s not funny, and how it can be hurtful. Whether we’re talking about race-related issues, whether we’re talking about homophobic-related issues, whether we’re talking about sexism or any of these other things.
It seems like Oakland has unique challenges when it comes to policing. We just had that terrible milestone of like the 100th homicide. I mean, this very interview was delayed because an officer was shot. What are the unique challenges of policing in the city?
I think the unique challenge is that Oakland has a long history of social justice advocates. And I think you know that sometimes impacts people’s willingness to have a relationship with the police. It impacts people’s trust in police. And I think that it has created this dynamic of sort of separation between police and community: this whole us-against-them kind of mentality. And even when we have discussions around “defund it.” Some of these discussions are really sort of around people’s anti-police sentiment as opposed to what is in the best interest of public safety.
So, oftentimes, I’m saying to people that we’re having a philosophical discussion when I’m simply talking about the proper number of resources that it takes to actually address the level of crime that we’re facing in the city. You can just look at the number of calls that we get in, based on the number of officers on our current staff and see how many people do we have to actually address this workload. We’ve got a workload analysis that shows that we have far too few officers to do the level of work that we’ve been asked to do. Now, I think that’s an evidence-based discussion, based on data. But then when we’re talking about, do we need more police officers versus do we want to have more investment in violence prevention. I think that’s a philosophical discussion. I think some people will believe that we need less police because they believe, ‘Oh, police are not the right people for this to respond to certain crimes.’ Other people don’t feel that way. I think that’s a philosophical position: Do you even support the job the police do or maybe feel like somebody else should be doing it?
What’s important to me is that you can provide adequate public safety services when people pick up the phone and call 911. Do you have enough officers to respond to these calls in an efficient time period, or do people having an emergency and need help waiting far too long? And is that contributing to why crime continues to go up? Because even the guys who commit crimes know and they recognize that in Oakland, if you’re not getting shot, it’s highly likely to take up a significant amount of time to get there. There’s no incentive to not commit crime in the city that can’t respond in a timely manner to crime being committed. And the research has shown that departments who can quickly respond to calls for service have a higher success rate of apprehending the people responsible for it.
I’m wondering if you think that being a person of color impacts how you approach your job.
Every day, I bring my experiences of being a Black man first. The only immutable characteristic I have as a human being is the fact that I’m Black. I think that voices have been missing, particularly as an African American man, that voice has been missing for a long time in the room. But I’m also challenged by a lot of African American chiefs that have not taken opportunities to really educate others about what does it feel like to be an African American chief. How can our own personal experiences inform the way we lead our organization?
When people say racial profiling doesn’t exist, I know point blank that’s not true. I’ve been racially profiled myself. I’ve had white people lock the doors as I walk by their cars and I’m thinking, I’m the safest person to be around. I think if somebody were to try to do something to you, I’d actually help you. I have white women move their purses to the other side when they’re walking next to me. So these are the things that we have to be honest about.
I’ve been pulled over by cops and not told why. Before they asked me for my name if I was on probation and parole before. I saw all of these things and I thought in that moment, do you do that with everybody? And I’m sure they don’t.
My family has been the victim of violence. My brother was killed. He was murdered in the city of Oakland. So when I come before the community, and I talk about the impact of violence, I know firsthand, because I watched my mother and our family go through so much trauma as a result of my brother’s death. So I want people to know that they’re not in this alone. In my opinion, it resonates with them because they know it’s genuine.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about policing?
I think the biggest misconception is the idea that people think that police officers come to work every day to treat people and community members unfair and inappropriate. The officers across this country that are involved in misconduct represent a very small percentage of all the thousands of police officers that come here every day, and put their lives on the line for their communities. It’s sad to me that in this city of Oakland — where we respond to thousands of calls a day, where officers know the risks that they face — that people don’t recognize the heroism behind what they do. While bullets are being fired, police officers are driving towards those bullets and other people are running away. I know as somebody that has been in many incidents where my life could have been taken, that I didn’t have to do that. I chose to do that because it is my job to do it. Now, bad cops need to be held accountable. But for those that wear it with honor and do a phenomenal job or even do a good job or just go out and try their best, we should thank them, we should be appreciative, that when we pick up the phone there’s somebody else on the other side that’s willing to jump and do something.
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