Mike Sobek

Feb 022015
San Leandrans at the January 8, 2015, anti-police militarization rally

San Leandrans at the January 8, 2015, anti-police militarization rally.

Fear is a stone throw away from political repression, literally.

Update: The closed session meeting was finally cancelled on the day of the vote, but the City Council chambers were filled with police officers in uniform, in order to intimidate public speakers.  Two dozen citizens still spoke out against the tank. Only one San Leandro citizen without business ties to the police department spoke in favor of it.

Mayor Pauline Cutter has called for a special closed session meeting of the San Leandro City Council  tonight, to take place before the Council votes to acquire a BearCat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) for the Police Department.  The Council will secretly consult with SLPD Lieutenant Michael Sobek on a “threat to public services and facilities.”  When a neighbor inquired as to the nature of this threat, citing concerns for the children and students that will be participating in tonight’s rally, Cutter responded:

M., the agenda was revised because I decided not to have the pictures taken Monday night since there was going to be so much happening.
I believe there will be a lot of folks at the rally, I know it’s been posted all over the Internet and I just wanted to provide the new members some education on what their choices are if they feel threatened or unsafe during the meeting.
I will try my best to make sure everyone gets heard and everyone feels safe. I’m not expecting anything to happen but just want to give a little support to the new members and let them know that we have options if the meeting gets disrupted. I can honestly say I know of no plans for the police trying to interfere with the rally if fact I would imagine they of all people there would like everyone to have a peaceful rally.

There have been numerous rallies before City Council meetings, on contentious issues ranging from the flying of the Chinese flag over City Hall to the use of classroom funds to pay for police officers to spy on students.  A rally against police militarization before a Council meeting a mere three weeks ago garnered broad media attention and resulted in no greater disruption than spontaneous applause at points made by public speakers.

The fact that the City Council will be meeting secretly with the Police is particularly worrisome, as it suggests that the “options” Mayor Cutter wants her colleagues to consider solely involve police repression.  The Council, after all, will not be meeting with the City Attorney to understand what constitutes constitutionally protected speech at public meetings nor will it meet with facilities personnel to understand the security features present at the City Hall chambers.  Council meetings on contentious issues are usually heavily attended by police officers both in and out of uniform.

Even more worrisome is the fear of the citizenry that Mayor Pauline Cutter has voiced through this action and which her colleagues have yet to repudiate (they are invited to do so in the comments section).  A Mayor and a Council who fear their own citizens will surely arm the Police with repressive weapons to be used against them and will authorize the use of such weapons at the slightest hint of social unrest.    In this context, neither the purchase of the BearCat nor the policy which authorizes its use in every conceivable situation, including peaceful protests, is casual.  But it’s exactly such attitudes that must embolden citizens to stand up for their human rights and civil liberties and demand an end to police militarization and government repression.



Jun 172011

San Leandro is a diverse town.  The latest census numbers show that there about equal numbers of whites, Asians and Latinos in town, African-Americans making another 11% of the population.  You will see this wonderful diversity when you visit our schools, our public library, our parks or community festivities.  You will not see it, however, at City Hall.

Last Monday the City Council carried out a work session on the issue of racial diversity in the city’s workforce.  The city’s Human Resources consultant, Steve Harman,  and the Chief Police, Sandra Spagnoli, both gave very brief presentations about diversity in their departments.  The data they brought was scant but telling.  Sixty one percent of the total City workforce and 62% of the Police force is white.

These numbers, moreover, don’t tell us about the type of jobs held by members of racial minorities in San Leandro.  Are blacks and Latinos working for the city as accountants and public work specialists, or as street cleaners and gardeners? City Hall needs to make this clear.  We do know, however, that there are very few minorities at the upper echelon of city government and that 71% of the last 14 people hired at the city (which included the Chief of Police and the Finance Director) are white.

The situation at the Police Department may be even grimmer.  While Spagnoli did not disclose the number of minority sworn officers, Mike Sobek, the head of the San Leandro Police Officers Association,  spoke during public comments and mentioned that (out of the 90 or so sworn officers) only two are black and two Latino (including himself).  There doesn’t seem to be any Asians.  They did say that 13% of officers are female, while the number might look low it is better than the national average of 8% or so.

Fortunately both Chief Spagnoli and Sobek seem to understand the real importance of diversifying the force.  Spagnoli told the Council that Police forces must reflect the ethnic diversity of the communities they serve, and she’s making changes in the recruitment and promotion process at the SLPD to accomplish this goal.  Spagnoli also wants to get more officers that are bilingual, have college education, special training and live in San Leandro.   Applications for SLPD positions will now be accepted in an ongoing basis, allowing the SLPD to build a richer application pool.  It would help this process, however, if the SLPD posted job openings on their website.  Promotions to sergeant positions will no longer be based entirely on an interview with police higher ups, but on objective criteria as well, and require people from outside the SLPD in the interview panel.  This latter change comes as part of the settlement agreement with the female officers who sued the city for sexual discrimination.

During public comments, Sobek spoke of the need to not just open the process to minority applicants but to specifically recruit them.  He suggested the Police go to colleges with diverse student populations and suggest law enforcement careers to students who might not have considered them before.  Having a Police force which is diverse not only ethnically, but ideologically would likely help in establishing good relations with the community as a whole.

Sobek had many very positive things to say about Spagnoli – in particular he spoke eloquently about how she’s helping the force gain a sense of focus and purpose.  It seems she’s really bringing a level of professionalism the force was lacking.  From the outside, it’s difficult to know how she’s handling the “rotten apple” problems within the SLPD, and as head of the Police Union Sobek is not an unbiased observer, but his words of praise for Spagnoli seemed heartfelt and I’m hoping they reflect a commitment within the SLPD hierarchy and union to create a police force with is both clean and committed to the community they serve.

Back at City Hall, the idea of diversifying the workforce seems to be new and novel at the City management level.  While recruitment of individual positions varies, it seems clear that the city has not done anything to promote job openings among minority populations.  The city does not even advertise its jobs in places like Craigslist, preferring to use the San Leandro Times and its own website.   The City Council, however, seems to be listening to the tolling of the bells and sent the message that they want a more open process.   The Council’s real commitment to diversity will actually be tested in their choice of a new city manager.  Signs so far are encouraging, last month they started the city manager hiring process anew when they couldn’t find a suitable candidate with a good understanding of diversity issues.


May 232011

The San Leandro Police Department has had a checkered history.  Until the 1980s, the Police Department was instrumental in keeping San Leandro white by following and harassing black people who came to town.  While the Department diversified in the 90s, it’s still overwhelmingly white and male.  In recent years, it’s been the object of sexual harassment lawsuits both by female officers and private citizens.  While we haven’t had any widespread scandals, there have been grumblings here are and there about police misconduct and racism.  The shooting of an unarmed woman late last year and the mauling of a dog by an SLPD  dog – and the complete lack of accountability by the officers involved, also raise concerns about the professionalism of the Police Department.

Personally, my experiences with the SLPD have mostly been positive.  Officers have been professional and somewhat helpful in the few personal encounters I’ve had with them.  However, I am concerned about the pettiness of the Police Union and its members.  They’ve been boycotting the Zocalo Coffeehouse for more than a year because its owner, Tim Holmes, was the campaign manager for Stephen Cassidy’s successful Mayoral run.  Cassidy advocated for Officers to pay their own share of pension contributions.   The Police’s pettiness turned dangerous when they did not show up to direct traffic at the 2010 annual Safe Streets, Safe Treats Halloween event, organized by Holmes and other businesses in the Dutton/Bancroft area.   That meant that hundreds of children were left to cross two very busy streets without any help.  The Police had helped with traffic every year since the event was started, and had said they would be there last year as well.   It’s one thing to be mad at a business owner, but to put the lives of hundreds of children at risk because of your personal grudge is unconscionable.   I’ve recently experienced the Police Union’s lack of professionalism myself. When I publicly questioned the excuse given by Police officers as to why most of them do not live in town, Mike Sobek, the head of the union, “suggested” I move out of town.

But my limited experiences, or the few accounts of such experiences found online, paint a very partial picture.  I’d like to hear from all readers about their experiences, whether bad or good, professional or unprofessional – as well as their suggestions as to what could be done to improve the SLPD.  So, if you have something to say, post it as a comment.  You can do so anonymously if you like.