Getting political with police policy (COLUMN)

February 22, 2004

Peggy Stinnett , The Oakland Tribune

HAVE YOU noticed how seriously Oakland police are taking cues from Oakland City Council policy makers? It make me wonder whether this is the way to run a police department.

I called an Oakland police officer after the Presidents Day planting of marijuana seeds in the lawn at City Hall.

There seemed to be no effort to stop the medical marijuana protesters from scattering seeds on the well-kept grass of another kind.

Why not, I asked, especially since it was reported in the Tribune along with a photo of the planting spree that there were some cops standing not far away.

The group was protesting the impending council action to reduce the number of plants a patient can grow for personal medicinal use from 72 to 18. Ever since the city found out there is a batch of medical marijuana cafes downtown, there's been a hunt for ways to reduce their number.

Council President Ignacio De La Fuente's image was featured at the plant-in with an effigy scarecrow. He was the

bad guy for trying to limit medical pot users to less weed.

I figured maybe marijuana seeds were not illegal, or maybe the cops figured the seeds wouldn't grow anyway because they need more warmth than we get in Oakland this time of year.

But those weren't the reasons at all. I was reminded by an officer of fairly high rank that catching pot users is a low priority of the City Council, so maybe nothing was done to stop the protest for that reason. He wasn't saying that definitely was the case, but hinted it could be.

Given that little tip, I began to imagine what could happen if police strictly observed council policy in all arrests.

We're on a street corner as two cops are discussing whether they should arrest a suspect or not.

'Do we know City Council policy on this?' asks Cop One. Cop Two says: 'Let me check.' He pulls out a little black book. 'It says here this offense is a medium to high priority.'

'OK,' says Cop One. 'But how did they vote? Where was Desley on this?' Cop Two: 'She was for it.'

Cop One: 'Where was Nancy?' Cop Two: 'She was against it.'

Well, it could happen, if it hasn't already.

The next thing I noticed was the decision by District Attorney Tom Orloff not to prosecute the people arrested last month in support of striking supermarket workers.

De La Fuente was one of those arrested when he was among demonstrators blocking the entrance to the Rockridge Safeway.

Police Lt. Dave Kozicki, in command of about 70 officers, called the Orloff decision a political one that conflicts with what police believed the district attorney was going to do.

It sure looked that way, but if that was the case, why was De La Fuente arrested? Shouldn't the arrest of the president of the council be a low priority? I guess not if he wants to look real good with the unions but not go to jail.

Kozicki told the Tribune he and other officers had met with Orloff in advance and asked what evidence they would need to file charges. Orloff said later his decision was political only in the sense that he is elected to make decisions. He decided that because the demonstration was peaceful there would be no point in filing charges that could lead to a costly and lengthy trial.

How political can you get and not be political?

Kozicki said he agrees the protest was peaceful, but it did disrupt residents who were deprived of police services while they were busy dealing with the protest, which, he said, cost $20,000 in police overtime.

For his part, De La Fuente said he was glad he wasn't going to jail, but would do it again because the cause of the Safeway strikers is 'the biggest crises' in America.

Orloff's comments were another sign that Oakland police better listen carefully when elected officials speak, before and after events.

Meanwhile, intrepid advocates of medical marijuana are proposing an initiative for the November ballot that would tax and regulate sales of weed, and the council has ordered new regulations for medical pot hang-outs. There were no details on the marijuana tax, but any tax seems to be attractive to revenue-hungry council members.

The initiative would also direct the police department to treat the private use of marijuana by adults as its lowest priority until cannabis is legalized in California.

If that passes, the police will be following the policy of the voters directly, which sounds a lot better than putting in calls to Ignacio, Nancy, Desley, et al.

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