The Oakland City Council posted a packed agenda for last night’s meeting. Several issues with an already demonstrated huge degree of public interest, advocacy and participation jammed the roll—among them, a resolution to accept federal money to clear trees from the Oakland hills, the DAC policies community activists had helped the city craft, and a fund benefit for the Oakland Private Industry Council. As many would have guessed all of these generated dozens of speakers each, and this is not to mention the highly successful campaign to stop illegal sale of public lands on E. 12th which brought well over 90 speakers.
At the end of this very long list, a proposal to clear a memorandum of understanding between the Oakland Police Department and the FBI, went nearly unnoticed by activists in attendance. The MOU proposal was not heard until 12:30 am, and it was passed, literally, while you were sleeping.
The MOU between the City Administrator’s Office and the FBI will, ostensibly, okay what seems to be a significant expansion of an ongoing partnership with FBI programs like Safe Streets, which form the platform for the city’s anti-gang and major crimes task force and it’s Ceasefire program. The legislation requests matching funds for what the text describes as the creation of a “shared work space” between the FBI and OPD in the Police Administration Building.
But the police department’s own report [available as a PDF in the link above] describes a much more extensive cooperation than just joint office space. The MOU would add what seems to be an open-ended detail of 10 dedicated FBI special agents whose sole focus would be tandem work with the OPD on gang and major crimes cases. The task force office of the OPD-FBI would also harbor an undisclosed number of OPD officers who have been deputized as federal agents in order to facilitate work with the FBI. Their work loads, focus, boundaries and supervision and oversight are left purposefully vague in the report, which focuses on the construction of the work space, and leaves the actual body which will use it a deconstructed blur.
While the new office and agency would reside in the PAB, it will be like no other office within the building. During the Public Safety Committee hearing and vote, Special Agent Nimmo described a vault-like door, and other physical infrastructure which will make the office itself inaccessible to other police officers within the building. Computers that FBI and deputized OPD officers will be looking at will have hard drives put into safes at night.
The rationale and explanation of the benefits of the new FBI-OPD office and agency are far from convincing. The OPD’s stated rationale in its own report on the MOU focuses on the lack of desk space and infrastructure for the FBI at police headquarters. This is suspect for a number of reasons. The FBI’s Oakland office, which was doubled in size and moved to Webster Street several years ago, is only a six minute drive away from the PAB. Moreover, despite this rationale of desks and work-space for tired officers who lack the energy to drive from seventh st. to the Lake, OPD administrators returned again and again to the bonus of new FBI data systems that OPD would have unfettered access to.
This wasn’t the first time the council had buried the legislation. The public safety committee’s hearing of the MOU proposal was also set last, after substantial public interest issues. Moreover, video of the meeting was archived incorrectly, with the latter two hours of the meeting, which contained the MOU build out issue, missing without explanation. The video was only added to the granicus site Monday, one day before the legislation would be brought to the full council for a vote. The restored video has one notable audio drop-out—when OPD Lt. Roland Holmgren is describing the OPD-FBI’s plan to analyze the “social networks” of suspected gang-members.
In both meetings, Holmgren and Bruce Stoffmacher, a staffer with the OPD, seem ill-prepared to describe and advocate for the benefits of the MOU or to describe its components. And the public safety committee and the full council itself seemed uninterested in the various questions that the MOU brings up: whether or not the federal monitor would have jurisdiction over the task force unit; the duration of the now-physical partnership with FBI and who would govern changes to the partnership; OPD and city monitoring roles ,etc. The list would seem nearly endless, in fact, to any rationale administrator entering into a partnership with a vastly more powerful and influential entity.
Instead, city council members—with the exception of Rebecca Kaplan, who outlined years of FBI rabbit hole disasters that the OPD had fallen into with similarly best intentions—seemed uninterested in any real interrogation of the merits of the MOU. This is best exemplified by the uncontested mischaracterization of the program as restricted to homicides alone by OPD Chief Whent and Lt. Holmgren whenever a CM queried about the program’s scope. The report describes no such limitations, however. Throughout the text, it mentions other types of crimes and scopes:
“Resources will be utilized to strengthen and expand existing police investigations and enforcement operations for targeting violent crime throughout the City of Oakland.”
“OPD has partnered with the Safe Streets Task Force on a number of recent joint investigations related to gangs, homicides, robberies and fugitives.”
“…providing Agents and resources to aid in investigations and address the most serious types of crime”
“OPD will have a new capacity for sustained and expanded investigations of violent crime occurring in Oakland creating a permanent space for joint FBI-OPD investigations in the P AB. Much of the work conducted by SAs and TFOs are directly related to OPD gang investigations.”
In fact, though there are several more references to “violent crime” throughout the text, a limitation to homicide investigations is not described. Holmgren himself, during last night’s meeting, also alluded to the FBI investigating robberies, even as it was later claimed during the hearing that the program would only target homicides. Stoffmacher also mentioned in his introduction, that the hybrid agency would be investigating robberies.
The field of gang studies is a fecund one for police, because it encapsulates almost every illegal activity from buying weed to prostitution to strong arm robbery and Iphone theft. Basically everything which falls into the scope of a so-called gang investigation would be in the purview of the body. Holmgren’s boast of a committed FBI analyst looking at “social networks” made during the public safety committee meeting, would be baseless, in fact, if this was not true.
Despite the overwhelming case for a normative interest in due diligence, council members relied on calls to emotion, each gargling their passion for a reduction in homicides as if they were the first person to ever utter the idea. The discussion ended with Mcilheney stating that as long as the program was limited to homicides, there was no need for further questions. And the council voted 6-1 to fuse the FBI into the OPD in an open-ended fashion on the same day it was revealed by the AP that the FBI uses civilian aircraft companies as a front to surveill cities and a person of color was murdered by a joint police/FBI operation in Boston.
Note: Usama Rahim, the man I mentioned above, in a tragic irony, is the brother of the Imam of the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland. The Lighthouse Mosque brought dozens of speakers to speak out against the DAC when it was up for vote in 2014. It’s simply amazing that on the day that a well-respected religious leader of Oakland’s brother was killed by an FBI/Police hybrid team, the City Council okayed the legislation with minimal questions.