Oakland's New Police Chief Wants to Change ‘Hearts and Minds'

While still learning the ropes of the department and catching up on city policy, new Oakland police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick says she wants to change the hearts and minds of police officers and help care for the city's most vulnerable residents.

How she plans to accomplish that is still an open question. In a roundtable with reporters Wednesday morning, Kirkpatrick declined to talk specifics of any city or department policies, pointing out that it was only her third day on the job after being sworn in at City Hall on Monday.

Kirkpatrick said she is living in downtown Oakland, setting her apart from 90 percent of the department's officers who don't live in the city. She said she gets up early, spends her mornings reading and then runs on a treadmill before heading to work.

But when she has been out in the city, she says she's been struck by how many homeless people she's seen, and said she's concerned for them.

"I want to know what are the initiatives, what are we doing to help the vulnerable?" Kirkpatrick said. As first responders, she said the police role is to care for them.

But police spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson was also quick to point out that the Police Department does not set policy in dealing with homelessness but rather assists in city efforts when needed.

Kirkpatrick was clear that she sees the city government as her true boss, pledging that she would not be taking directives from the federal government.

"I work for the city of Oakland," she said. "I am not a federal agent, I do not work for the federal government."

While she said she was still too new on the job to discuss the specifics of what she might change in the Oakland Police Department, she spoke broadly about her policing philosophies, including the difference between "reform" and "transformation," saying she wants to change thinking in the department.

To reform is to change policies, laws and rules to force a behavior change, but a transformation is much deeper.

"When you want to change a culture, you have to change thinking," she said. "We're in the 21st century. We police differently than we did 35 years ago. I think differently than I did 35 years ago."

Changing the thinking of the department could prove a tall order, as even reforms have moved glacially there.

The department has been under the oversight of a federal judge since 2003, making reforms that were only intended to last a few years. The reforms were nearly complete at the beginning of 2016, but a massive scandal involving the sexual exploitation of a teen girl by police officers led to the resignation of then-police Chief Sean Whent, setting the stage for Kirkpatrick's arrival.

Kirkpatrick has been in law enforcement for 35 years, originally working in her native Memphis, Tennessee, and later moving to Washington state, where she attended law school and was a police chief at three different departments.

She was police chief in Spokane, Washington, for six years, also coming into that department at a time of turmoil after Otto Zehm was killed in a confrontation with a police officer in 2006.

When her successor was hired in 2012, he requested a U.S. Department of Justice review of the department and the report found that it lacked leadership and transparency under Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick was then a finalist for the police chief position in Chicago and stayed on there to assist the department with its own reforms. She left that position after only six months to take the chief's job in Oakland.

Kirkpatrick said her one goal is to make Oakland a safe city but stressed that she takes a holistic approach to safety, saying that jailing is often not the answer to reduce crime.

She says that she thinks Oakland could be the best police department in the country.

Kirkpatrick was drawn to Oakland because it "is a city on the move," she said, and to the department because, "I want to be a part of a team that wants to be the best."

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