THE SHOOTING DEATHS of four Oakland police officers in March represented perhaps the most tragic day in the history of California law enforcement.
Four vibrant public servants died, as did their killer. A sea of grief washed over Oakland and all of the state, really, if not the nation. The president sent videotaped condolences; widows and suddenly fatherless children wept.
Four months later, there are more questions than answers. At the core is this: How did two highly trained SWAT sergeants die as they hunted for a gunman who had already murdered two motorcycle officers?
Oaklanders deserve answers about how things went so horribly wrong. The police and Mayor Ronald Dellums must be publicly forthcoming with details regardless of how ugly they may be.
But a written message that Acting Police Chief Howard Jordan recently sent out, raises doubts about how transparent — if at all — police will be about the killings when lengthy investigations are finished.
Jordan asked officers to close ranks, act like a family, and trust that he would get to the bottom of what happened: Officers should "seek the confidence of those who are willing to help and guide us as opposed to those — the media — who seek to hurt us and discredit us to the public we are sworn to serve."
The Police Department also has rejected requests — with the backing of the city attorney's office and the county District Attorney — for the 911 tapes and dispatcher broadcasts about the shootings, citing an ongoing investigation.
In Pittsburgh, Pa., just weeks after the Oakland tragedy, three police officers were also killed. Within days, news organizations had access to 911 tapes that showed a horrible error: a dispatcher had failed to pass on to the responding cops that there were guns in the house.
In Oakland, reports have made it clear that there was confusion as police prepared to raid an apartment building where the gunman was hiding, and that, like in Pittsburgh, good men may have died because of apparent mistakes.
Pennsylvania is not a state with strong government transparency. And yet the people of Pittsburgh got answers.
California is a state where government transparency is Constitutionally mandated. And yet the people of Oakland just wait.
Rather than be transparent, Jordan wants the department to close ranks and hunker down. He's clearly a bureaucrat who places image before substance.
I asked Jordan for an interview to explain his thinking. He said no. He also wrote in an e-mail to me that his message was "correspondence intended for our staff only." On multiple levels, Jordan is mistaken. First, as acting chief, his writings are public record. He can't issue a statement to hundreds of cops and claim it's private. If he truly thinks that, he is bereft of even a basic understanding of the Public Records Act.
That ought to be extremely troubling to Oakland residents.
As acting chief, Jordan runs a city department — and wants to run it permanently — that, counting civilian employees such as technicians and dispatchers, employs more than 1,000 people with a payroll that exceeds $121 million a year.
His 2008 salary was more than $213,000 — more than enough money to know better.
Equally troubling are Jordan's call for the police department to act like a family — a group that inherently protects its members and keeps secrets — rather than a transparent government agency and that he thinks the intent of investigative journalism is to "hurt and discredit" his department.
Does he really believe this? Or does he think that's what cops on the street think and wants to tell them what they want to hear as he campaigns to be named permanent chief? Whom does he serve first, his fellow officers or the taxpayers?
California police departments are already secret societies protected by draconian laws blocking all access to internal information like personnel records, performance reports and discipline.
The lack of public access to information about the performance of officers means police departments, such as Oakland's, don't have meaningful accountability. But when news organizations work to provide it, cops like Jordan simplistically say that tough questions are attacks on the family.
A consultant hired to help Oakland search for its next chief wrote in a memo that that person must "be committed to transparency in all aspects of the policing."
Transparency in all aspects of policing? Does that sound like Howard Jordan?
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group who has won numerous journalism awards for reporting on First Amendment issues. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org