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Ask the Chief – Oakland: An Interview with LeRonne Armstrong

Black police officer, in uniform, smiling. American flag in the background

*This interview is the first installment of Ask the Chief, a BPR interview series with police chiefs from around the country.  

LeRonne Armstrong is the Oakland Chief of Police. Chief Armstrong joined the Oakland Police Department in 1999, and in his twenty-two years of service prior to becoming chief earlier this year, he has served in a variety of roles, namely: Problem Solving Officer, Commanding Officer of the Special Operations Division, and supervisor for the Gang Intelligence Task Force. As department liaison to Stanford University’s SPARQ Program, Chief Armstrong led the implementation of all fifty recommendations from the “Strategies” report aimed at increasing trust in the community.

Sam Trachtenberg: Why did you decide to go into law enforcement? 

LeRonne Armstrong: I went into law enforcement because I grew up in Oakland, California. I grew up in the early seventies in the community where the Black Panther Party was formed. We didn’t have a good relationship with law enforcement. I didn’t really see police officers protecting us in the community. We obviously faced violence very frequently but didn’t really feel like there was a system that supported a safe way to address violence in our community or one we could trust that wouldn’t overly impact us as residents. I saw early on, when my brother was murdered, that a community that faced significant violence also needed to maintain a relationship with law enforcement because whether you like law enforcement or not, you have to acknowledge that there’s a need for the person responsible for that crime to be brought to justice. That’s what made me want to be a part of public safety. I wasn’t sure about the role that I would play, I didn’t know it would be within the police department, but I knew I wanted to be a part of our public safety. 

ST: What are some common misconceptions that people hold about the police or about policing in general?

LA: I think one of the biggest misconceptions that I see about policing is that everybody gets painted with a broad brush. Whenever you see one incident happen in a department on another side of the country, people will attribute that to every department. There’s a belief that all police officers are bad, or all police officers are going out and engaging in excessive force or unjust and unfair treatment. That’s obviously a very challenging issue. There are 18,000 police departments in the United States. Unfortunately, these incidents can paint us all in a negative light when the vast majority of police officers are coming to work, doing a great job, and addressing safety concerns.

Seeing the level of mass shootings that we’ve seen in this country, whether we’re talking about just 2021 or the last four or five years, you know that we have a problem.  The evidence clearly suggests that there’s a problem with gun violence in America. Meanwhile, police officers are on the frontlines every day, trying to keep communities safe. I think that gets overshadowed by some of the incidents that we see. Not that those incidents aren’t really important, or that it’s not important to make sure that there’s quality policing happening, but I think there should also be a balanced acknowledgment that there are police departments that are doing it right and not engaging in this type of activity. 

ST: You mentioned that gun violence is still rampant in America. But a lot of police officers still strongly support the second amendment and are vehemently opposed to gun control measures. Can you explain why there’s a strong response to gun control from the police community? 

LA: Policing is different across the country. I can say in California, we truly recognized the need for gun control because we know that there are some weapons that don’t belong in urban communities or any community. The fact that we have ghost guns being printed and not regulated is a problem. I think the fact that people can create and put these guns together and cause harm in communities is concerning.

From my standpoint, when we talk about high-power rifles and things like that, I think we all have seen what can happen when they are used in communities. We see that they are more of weapons of war than they are weapons for actual protection. I think that the impact of mass killings and the devastation in our communities is enough to warrant stronger control over high-powered weapons. Even in Oakland, we recently had a 15-year-old shot and killed from 20 rounds fired. A week before that, we had over 90 rounds fired from a high-power weapon at young people in a party bus.

I would hope that all of us as Americans can say that these are not weapons that we want to see in our community. These weapons are doing exactly what they’re intended to do, which is to take lives. 

Whether we want to agree or not, high-powered weapons on the streets are unsafe, even for law enforcement. Police officers don’t wear body armor that can prevent these rounds from causing death. I just think there has to be some common sense when we talk about what weapons should be on the streets of our communities in this country. 

ST: Do you believe that there is deep-rooted systemic racism embedded in policing in America?

LA: I think we have to acknowledge the history of policing. I think policing has evolved over many years. Police officers make up policing, and there are officers in this country that obviously have biases, potentially implicit biases, that they bring into this profession. It’s important that all law enforcement invests in training to help officers better understand how their upbringings and how the environments that they grew up in could contribute to how they go out and do their jobs every day. I don’t know if there’s ill intent by all officers when it comes to things like that, but it’s important that we have those conversations about implicit bias, about racial bias. I think these are key questions for law enforcement and I can say that the Oakland police department has invested in having that type of training. We partnered with Stanford University to have all of our officers trained in implicit bias. I have all of our officers trained in procedural justice because a police department is just a microcosm of this country as a whole. For us to say that as we deal with racism across our country, that it has not entered law enforcement would just be unrealistic or just disingenuous when we know that we’re impacted by the same things that all Americans are impacted by.  I think the question for us is that are we as law enforcement being as proactive as we can to address these issues and make sure that people’s beliefs, their personal beliefs, do not come into play as they make decisions that could lead to police actions that might impact people’s communities in a harmful way.

We need to be open and honest about this conversation and make these changes. We need to speak the truth.  We need to have meaningful change that actually leads to positive outcomes. That’s what we’re doing in Oakland, we’re having real conversations to come up with real solutions that include the community.

Policing has been done in an insular fashion for many years. Policies and training have been developed without community input. I think it is time for law enforcement to accept the fact that the community has a voice in how they’re policed.  Law enforcement has to become more open to civilian oversight.

If we’re doing things the right way, if we are following our policies, if we want to be legitimate in the eyes of the public, then we have to be transparent and willing to talk to the public and let the public see, you know, pull the curtain back. 

I think the unique part of the city of Oakland is that we have a Director of Race and Equity, Darlene Flynn. She leads that office and has input in our policy development. She’s helping us better understand if our policies and practices are fair and equitable for all people and if they’re going to produce harmful outcomes or not. I think that’s the lens that law enforcement leaders need to start looking through. 

ST: What would you say is the biggest problem facing police reform movements today?

LA: I think it’s the unwillingness to have dialogue. Protests are fine. Everybody’s free to exercise their first amendment right. Every movement in this country has started from people coming out and protesting and demanding change. But in the midst of demanding change, we have to sit down at some point and have a conversation about solutions.

As we begin to talk about what do you want to seek differently, we at some point have to say that policing is a function in American society, how do you want it to be better? How can it serve you better? There’s also an education piece to it that maybe we can provide some education about policing, why certain actions are taken, and the policies that govern certain actions. This is important so that everyone can have a common understanding of where the gaps are, where’s there is alignment between us, where areas for improvement are, and how can we come together to address the areas that need to be improved and come up with solutions that all of us agree are in the best interest of our community.

ST: A lot of focus today is placed on de-escalation training as a means to limit excessive use of force by police officers. Do you feel that this is the most effective way to prevent police violence? 

LA: I do. Oftentimes, you see situations that one could look at and ask why the officer couldn’t have de-escalated that situation. That’s why I think it’s so important that every department invests in technology that helps them practice de-escalation. Going through scenario-based training puts officers under stress and can help them make decisions in the training environment that allow them to feel more comfortable when they’re in the community and have to make those split-second decisions. 

It’s very infrequent in an officer’s career where they’re going to face a life-threatening situation. It’s something that you can’t replicate over and over again unless you use de-escalation technology unless you use simulated scenarios that help officers better understand how you calm down and make great decisions. We have to take away the stigma that’s been stuck to law enforcement for so long, that being the use of very brutal and force-related means in order to achieve compliance. I think we now are seeking compliance by minimal use of force. That’s really what the goal should be: trying to minimize the need to use force. The greatest tool that we have as police officers is actually our ability to talk to someone in a respectful way. 

ST: Are the excessive use of force cases that we hear about so often in the news (the murder of George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Daunte Wright, and so many more) a result of a few “bad apples,” or do you see there being a distinct police culture that allows abuses like these to transpire and go, very often, unpunished?

LA: No, some people say a few bad apples, I just think every organization is different. I think it all starts with hiring. Who do you hire as police officers in your department? What type of recruiting and hiring process do you have? How are you assessing your officer’s decision-making on an ongoing basis? In the Oakland police department, one of the things that we have really focused on is creating what we call a “risk management system”,  a system that is always using data to help us better understand what officer may be potentially going down a road that poses risks to the department.

That helps us as a department reassess and realign that officer’s actions; step in with strategies that can help improve the officer’s decision-making, better understanding what that officer is focused on when he or she is making stops, how many times that officer uses force, what type of force that officer uses, and compare that officer against his or her own peer group. I think every department should be investigating use of force. I think when we talk about using force on members of our community, that should include a use of force investigation by the department to determine if that use of force is within the law and if that force is in compliance with department policy.

We all have so many different standards across all these 18,000 police departments. It’s hard to say that you can have one unified way of describing what is going on in any particular department because the Oakland Police Department is much different than a department in New York or Los Angeles. We have different policies, we have different expectations for our officers, and the goals of the organizations could be different. I just think it’s hard to make a general idea of what drives culture in any department. I think all departments are different and they all have their own independent culture.

I will say that there is a time for all of us to acknowledge when we see something wrong. We all should feel comfortable saying that something is wrong and it’s not what police officers should be doing. I think that’s what we all experienced with the George Floyd incident. I think police officers across the country all agreed that those actions did not appear to be in line with training or what we would expect from police officers in this country, and I think the ruling was consistent with what most of us thought should happen. 

ST: In your twenty-two years at the Oakland police department, have you seen officers speak out about officer misconduct and, as a result of speaking out, face consequences? 

LA: Well, I’ve seen officers speak out against misconduct. When officers in our department have seen some pretty bad scandals in our organization, I think it was disappointing to all of the officers that do it the right way.  When you have a department that’s nearly 1,200 people, and one or two people or even five people do something that tarnishes the badge and the reputation of the organization, it is harmful to all those that come in here and make the sacrifice and work hard and do it the right way. It’s not fair to them because this is not an easy job in a very difficult city. I think it’s very difficult for them to come here every day with a mindset of helping to make Oakland a safe city while having their trust and legitimacy taken away because of somebody’s selfish actions. 

We haven’t seen any sort of retaliation in our organization as a result of speaking out. When we’ve had instances where people have engaged in misconduct in that way I think we’ve all dis-invited that conduct and said that that is not reflective of who we are as an organization. I think that’s what makes us unique. I think that’s what makes us a department that’s willing to hold ourselves accountable. But that’s what I expect from our team. 

ST: Does it offend you when people say “fuck the police”? 

LA: I know what it’s rooted in. It’s rooted in people’s mistrust of law enforcement. But what offends me is that I know in my heart why I come to work every day and why I do this job. I’m here because I want to make Oakland a safe community. I’m here because I care about the safety of those in my community. I’m here because I want to make policing better. When I hear a statement like that, it’s a slap in the face. But I also understand what it is rooted in. So, I think there’s a balance there.

What I’ll say is that we don’t want police officers to make opinions about any particular community. But, I think it has to be consistent on both sides. We also shouldn’t make statements about all police officers.  I think there’s room for dialogue, there’s room for us to get to know people on an individual basis and say, “I respect you for what you do, and we can do better”. We can talk about how we can do better, but I think saying “f the police” does not help us move forward. We can’t look at the number of violent incidents that have happened in this country and not accept the fact that had police not intervened, it could have been much more deadly, right? We have to accept that if we didn’t have police officers trying to address gun violence across America, we would be in a much deeper place than we are today. But the question is, how do we do it better? If people want to see us do it better, then how do they contribute to that so that they can get the policing that they like to see?

ST: Have you ever felt the need to teach your two daughters how to interact with the police as black women in America? 

LA: Well, I don’t feel like I need to teach them how to interact with a police officer in America because they interact with one every day. I don’t change who I am because I take off the uniform. I am who I am, no matter if I am in uniform or not. But I will say that as 18, 19-year-old teenagers, they’re at a point where they do have questions about policing, questions about how we can do better. I think that is what you would expect from an inquisitive college student.

They always push me to be able to hear their perspective about what they see as young teenagers and how they feel about law enforcement, and then that helps inform me about how I need to go and lead this department. The conversations that I need to have in our community are sometimes grounded in just the things that my kids have asked me. Like, “Hey dad, that looked bad, why did these officers do that? Do you guys do that?” Hearing them say that they don’t trust law enforcement shows that we have some work to do. But it also says that we need to make an investment in sitting down with young people, and in particular young people that spend a lot of time on social media, who oftentimes are just getting a piece of stories and don’t truly have both sides to it. I think that makes it even more important that law enforcement agencies across the country engage with communities. And that means an array of people within the community, including young people who come out and advocate on behalf of social justice. You have to be willing to have those conversations, to hear those voices and calls for change. And I think we as law enforcement have to be open to that. This is the next generation of policing. Reform is on the table. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.