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California and the West

New Oakland Police Chief Faces Pressures

Law enforcement: Richard Word, 37, says he can cut crime and handle political, business and departmental challenges.

July 02, 1999|SARAH YANG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OAKLAND — When Capt. Richard Word is sworn in today as Oakland's new police chief, here's what he has to look forward to: Mayor Jerry Brown wants a dramatic reduction in crime to fit his campaign promise of a revived Oakland; residents and business owners want to enhance community policing programs; and police officers want a leader who will better respond to their needs.

Running a big city police department is daunting enough. Word, at 37, will be the youngest police chief--and the second African American chief--in department history.

The new chief also is coming in on the heels of a political maelstrom, a city government shake-up that three months ago prompted the resignations of three department heads, including Police Chief Joseph Samuels, who became Oakland's first African American chief in 1993.

Word said he is confident in his ability to satisfy the various interest groups, and has pledged to cut the city's crime rate by 20% during his first year.

The key, he said, is for police officers to work closer with the community and work hand-in-hand with social services agencies that offer job options and substance abuse counseling.

"We realize that as a department, we can't do it all ourselves," he said.

Word's former boss, Samuels, was popular among residents; it was under his command that the department first incorporated the concept of community policing that brought officers closer to the people they were protecting. Under his command, Oakland's homicide rate dropped 50% in five years.

But the city still lags behind nationwide trends in crime reduction. According to the most recent statistics released by the FBI, Oakland's total violent crime rate had decreased 5.4% from 1997 to 1998, compared with 12.2% nationwide. Property crimes in the city increased 3.6% at the same time that the rate dropped 13.4% nationally.

Dissatisfied with Oakland's record, the mayor and city manager said change was needed. They picked Word, a department captain, in May with the blessing of the police union and prominent community members.

"He's high-energy and open to new ideas," Brown said. "Oakland is young-thinking. It's a vibrant city on the move. He expresses that spirit."

Word also has drawn praise in the community for his work battling street crime in the tough East Oakland district.

"He's extremely competent, extremely helpful, and very positive," said Tim Meese, a coordinator for the Oakland Commerce Corp., a group focused on keeping businesses in the city. Meese worked with Word on instituting a bicycle patrol program that helped increase police presence, and helped reduce drug dealing on the street.

Gladys Green, chairwoman for Oakland's seven community development districts, said she is impressed with Word's willingness to listen.

"All the people in this area like him a great deal," Green said. "There were lots and lots of letters sent recommending him as chief."

To achieve his goal of reducing crime, Word wants to hire 76 more officers by June 2000, which would bring the department to full staff. He also plans to divide the department into 15 geographic regions, each headed by a lieutenant in charge of 20 to 25 patrol officers. Oakland is currently divided into three command areas, each headed by a captain. Not only will the lieutenants have a closer relationship with the officers, Word said, but the officers can develop closer ties with the community.

The chief lives in Suisun City, southwest of Sacramento, with his wife and two children but is looking for a home in Oakland. He said he would like officers to live in Oakland, but does not want geography to limit the pool of job candidates.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Word fell into law enforcement when he became bored with his undergraduate studies in economics at the University of San Francisco. He took a job as a cadet at the San Francisco Sheriff's Department for extra money, running errands and fingerprinting new hires.

He found the work so interesting that he soon abandoned his studies. He applied for a position as a patrol officer in both San Francisco and Oakland. Oakland responded first.

That was in 1984. Word graduated at the top of his academy class, moved through the ranks and was promoted to captain in 1997.

Along the way, he returned to college, majoring in business and graduating cum laude last year from John F. Kennedy University in Contra Costa County. He is now working on a master's degree in public administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

"He was a policeman before he was anything else around here," said Officer Darrin Downum, an 11-year department veteran who worked with Word. "Rich Word to me has proven himself as a good man. He's there for you when you need him. I'll do anything for that man."

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