Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham have spent more than two decades investigating police corruption and malfeasance in Oakland. In a Polk-Award-winning story, they exposed a sexual abuse scandal involving a teenage girl. They reported on The Riders, the rogue gang of Oakland cops who beat and abused residents, planted drugs, and fabricated evidence. They have been on the beat so long that they have a vast knowledge not only of Oakland but of the failures of law enforcement in the US.
Their new book, The Riders Come Out At Night, is a brilliant, carefully reported, and clearly written account of the long history of problems at OPD, and how community activists have fought for reform.
I had a chance to speak with BondGraham and Winston recently and they explained some of the details of their book—and what it says about modern policing.
48HILLS In reading through the book, it’s just horrible—I mean, it’s not a horrible book, it’s a great book, but the stories you tell, over and over again, about horrible stuff OPD officers did and got away with. Part of what you say, I think, is that this is what modern policing is like. Is this a book that could be written about a dozen police departments around the country?
ALI WINSTON Yes and no. In many ways Oakland is a very typical American city because of its size, its makeup, de-industrialization, neoliberal policies in the 80s and 90s, problems with gun violence, inequality, the legacy of institutional racism. Where Oakland is an outlier is that in the historical trend it leads the country in many different eras in pushback against law enforcement excesses.
48HILLS A lot of cities don’t have the two you and the type of investigative reporting you’ve done. But I think you are saying that American policing is badly broken almost everywhere.
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM That’s exactly what we are saying.
ALI WINSTON Oakland has a really bad problem with policing especially in the Black community, and that’s not untrue of any similar sized city. The difference in Oakland is the consent decree, one of the only consent decrees established through private plaintiffs, not the US Department of Justice.
When the DOJ or a state attorney general pursues a consent decree, it’s always politicized from the very beginning. It’s influenced by whether it’s a democrat or republican, although the republicans hardly ever do this, and which administration is in power, and will the next administration throw out the consent decree.
In Oakland, two civil rights lawyers, John Burris and Jim Chanin pursued brought it on behalf of 119 plus individuals, they were able to stick around, and pursue reform and transparency that few other police departments have ever been subjected to.
When we see all these scandals popping off in Oakland, it’s not because Oakland police are is so bad or different; it’s because we’ve had and extra level of transparency in Oakland, we’ve pulled the curtain back. We do think if you did that in San Francisco or San Jose or manh other cities you would see a similar number of problems.
48HILLS One of the things that comes through clearly is that reform never comes from within. Reform only comes from the outside, in this case two civil rights lawyers, the community, a federal judge that made this happen.
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM Also a very brave whistle-blowing officerand members of the community and a lot of African American and Latino activists, going back to the 1950s and 1960s, pressing from the outside for oversight.
ALI WINSTON We couldn’t have done our book and our reporting if there weren’t people inside the department who realized their institution was broken. Our reporting on the sexual exploitation scandal in 2016 couldn’t have happened without people inside the department. So it’s not as if there aren’t people inside the department—but they have faced immense pressure from the thin blue line. Also, prosecutors have been behind the curve.
San Francisco has avoided oversight and federal intervention because the department is a tough nut to crack, there’s a strong omerta, a lot of legacy officers, they hold those traditions through generations. SFPD has gotten very lenient treatment not just from the local DA before Chesa Boudin but from the US attorney and state attorney general. A lot of members of the SF political class have been very high up in national and state politics, and the department has been protected.
48HILLS Another thing that comes through in your book is this idea of gentrification, you talk about the Jerry Brown era, you get politicians, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, saying we have to clean up the streets, and that gives cops a license to abuse people.
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM: The Riders, who we start our book with, were being reigned in a bit in the late 1990s, when Elihu Harris was mayor, and the police chief was Joseph Samuels (who was very unpopular with Oakland Police Officers Association), and the Black electorate in Oakland had asked the Police Department to be an effective crime fighting force—but also to not trample on people’s rights.
The tone in the department was a little subdued in 1997-1999.
Then Jerry Brown decides he’s going to make his political comeback. He chooses Oakland, he moves there, he has this show on KPFA were he’s talking about all these lefty ideas. Then he starts talking to Oakland voters, and the one thing he keeps hearing about is crime and safety, so he changes his tune and starts talking about cleaning up the streets, making Oakland safer than Walnut Creek.
He takes office in 1999, sacks the police chief and replaces him with a narcotics officer, Richard Word, who is less interested in community policing, and more interested in the more aggressive mission Brown wants to send the police out on. They start showing up at lineups and telling the officers we need to clean up Oakland. Brown has this plan to bring 10,000 people to downtown Oakland and the message he’s sending to the cops is to be aggressive, arrest dealers, run these people out of town.
That’s what kicks off the Riders scandal, because some of the people who were somewhat on the outs in the department, officers who had their ability to be training officers taken away, Brown and Word reinstate them as field training officers because these are the guys they want teaching cops. So they take these rookies under their wing, go out to east Oakland, and we see a lot of brutality racial profiling, false police reports, planting drugs, because that’s the message in the department, these guys are the stars. It’s deeply political.
48HILLS: Scary message for San Francisco, where the mayor and the DA have just said the same thing, that we have to clean up the streets using cops.
ALI WINSTON It’s going to happen. What happened to the Seattle Police Department, where they just got put under a consent decree for pummeling homeless people, and the same thing with the Portland Police Department, it’s going to happen in SF within the next three years if this is the way they are going.