Q&A: Chief Discusses Protocol, Risk, Policing Strategy

As interim, and now permanent chief, John Hunt says his department operates "by the book", which has been updated under his direction.

After a long stint as interim, John Hunt was appointed permanent chief of the Piedmont Police Department by City Council on Nov. 1.

You had been serving as the interim chief for almost two years, does it feel like you've stepped into a new role?

It's the same role.

I promised the employees here, that when I became interim [chief] I wasn't just going to be running in neutral waiting for the city council ... to decide who the new chief was going to be. ... So I ran with the ball... ever since I was appointed interim.

One of the first things we did—we had been sitting on a brand new book of policies for about a year, and so when I took the helm two years ago... I said we're just going to enact it... so we did. ...

Why was it such a top priority for you to update the Police Department's policy manual?

For years we had antiquated policies ... There was always a saying here of doing it "the Piedmont Way", which might not have always been the most up-to-date. I got tired of hearing that. ...

The [policies] didn't have case law attached to them so ... that you knew [if] they were on solid footing if they were ever gonna be challenged by anybody. ...

(In updating the Piedmont Police Department's manual, Hunt incorporated policies that public safety consulting firm Lexipol had prepared based on the latest best practices, court decisions and legislation.)

When you have policies ... that are tested in the courts, and where officers are expected to follow them ... then that is a reassurance to the citizens that we've got the best ... policies in place for our officers to not make mistakes, not do something that might cause a lawsuit or harm somebody unintentionally. ...

How would you describe the risk that you mitigate by updating some of these policies?

Just take the latest incident in terms of field interviews.

March 11, we field interviewed those two kids on Blair and Highland, which caused a ruckus with the public.

(Police had stopped Carrison Wade and Essey,  Adhanom, both African American Piedmont High School students, in response to a suspicious persons report that proved false. The incident prompted a packed City Council  forum Oct. 4. The council subsequently for police personnel as part of his new charge as chief.)

We have a policy in place that states how we, and when we are to ... fill out a field interview card. ... So when that incident came ... under scrutiny, I looked at our policy to see did the officers ... follow the policy. ... Then I was able to go to the council and go to the mothers and say, we did everything by the book, I'm sorry it turned out the way it did, or that it was taken the wrong way, but in terms of what we did, we did everything correctly. ...

Looking back at the police incident logs for the past year, it seemed fairly rare at a stop like that to actually fill out a field card.

You're right, it is rare.

In 2009, we had 604 suspicious circumstance incidences that we dispatched an officer to for the entire year. For the entire year we filled out 68 field interview cards—now, those field interview cards were not only filled out at the suspicious circumstances calls, they could have been other types of incidences. In 2008, we had 576 suspicious circumstances that we sent an officer to, for the whole year we filled out 66 field interview cards, again, not only related to those incidences. And, as of Oct. 18, 2010 we had responded to 465 suspicious circumstances, and we filled out 90 interview cards for the year to date...

The cards are filled out for different reasons. ... If we go to a party where there's kids drinking, we'll try to identify as many kids as we can so we can contact the parents. ... but that wouldn't be a suspicous circ[umstances] call.

There's really no relationship between field interview cards and suspicious circ[umstances] calls ... because the vast majority of supicious circ[umstances] calls nothing's going on, or there's really no reason to take information.

Do you think you'll consider specifying more directly when a circumstance does require a field card?

... I think the reason why the field cards were filled out at [the Oct. 4] incident was because we had an officer in training.

I doubt very much that any other officer in our agency that was not in training would have filled out FI cards on those two kids, for the simple fact that they would have known right off the bat that they're just Piedmont High School kids, and they live in town and they're not doing anything. ...

Willie (Wright), the officer who filled out the FI card, today he probably wouldn't be filling out a card, because he doesn't have to prove it to anybody and he knows what he's doing.

In my review of the past year's incident logs, it seems like you have been getting a lot of these unfounded suspicious cicumstances calls when a resident sees a black or Hispanic person in their neighborhood, as often as two or three times a week. Has struck you at all? Is that something you were concerned about before this was brought up in public forum on the March 11 incident?

No. Ever since I've been here—and I've been here since 1987—we've gotten those types of calls in Piedmont, and we're always gonna get those types of calls. ... Even though we may think that they're nonsense, we're going to be professional and respond to them, when there's enough information for us to respond to. Our dispatchers do a good job of being the first line of defense in determining if it is a legitimate call or not.

Is there anything you think the police can do in terms of preventing those types of calls, or educating people about how to distinguish between a Piedmont High School student on their way home and somebody who's actually trying to do something illegal?

One of my charges [from City Council when was named chief] was—it was a charge I had volunteered prior to them telling me to do it—to write these series of articles... to educate the public about why the police does things the way we do.

I cannot educate the public in terms of telling them what's suspicious and not, that's an individual determination. ... I can't educate every single person in the community on, man, that's really not suspicious, you didn't need to call us. I'm not gonna do that. ... I want them to use their own reason and judgement, and hopefully any biases they have won't be involved in their determination whether they call or not, but I don't have control of that.

The City Council also charged you with figuring out how personnel resources here get realigned presuming now its the second captain position that now doesn't get refilled. Do you have thoughts on that?

It's pretty much already in place... It deals with delegating some of the lesser duties of a captain... to the sergeants, ... that includes supervision of the detectives, management of the property room, management of the range and armory, and other specific assignments.

Are you finding you have enough people to spread it out to? Are you finding that people are having to work more hours?

There's not gonna be more hours. ... We have a more than competent captain, more than competent supervisors, to take these extra responsibilities in this time of fiscal stress where they just can't see to make us whole. And I'm not going to fight that because right now it's really not hurting us. If I was to lose some of this talent, then I might have some issues.

One of the things that was a surprise in the crime report, was that, despite the economic downturn, there was a decrease in crime in the summer and then otherwise it's kind of been flat line.

The summer was a big surprise. ... July and August were phenomenal. There's no rhyme or reason to it. I told the council, I'm going to give the credit to the officers... because they're out there, you know, ... doing their jobs... maybe they're deterring the criminals from even coming into town.

Most crooks don't know Oakland borders and Piedmont borders, you know, because we're Piedmont has very little to do with our low crime rate.

In other economic downturns have you observed that there has been a spike?

I have a 13 year crime trend from '97 to 2009. '97 was our worst year, but the following year, '98, [the number of major crime reports] dropped over 100 [from 334 to 225], and then dropped further for the next two years. In 2001, it spiked ... then dropped down 80 [in 2002]. ... This is what we deal with in Piedmont. ....

If we had a bad neighborhood and we knew that the Joneses in that neighborhood are all out of jail now and they're all causing crime, we could put a finger on it, but Piedmont doesn't have neighborhoods like that. ...

When we do get hit... it's [usually] not by a criminal who's going to consistently come to Piedmont, it's going to be a one time thing, or a one time thing over a week. ... Let's say ... three or four cars on Artuna ... have been burglarized. We know we got hit there, but that person may not come back now for another year, or ever. ...

It's just like randomness.

So what do you prepare for?

We go with what we know are our hot neighborhoods—that's anything off Oakland Avenue, Moraga Avenue, Grand Avenue, and maybe Park Boulevard. ...

[Piedmont is] not a growing community ... so it's not like we need to change direction or anticipate a big influx of a type of crime in town (due to an increase in population or business development). Typical crimes are crimes of opportunity ... because of the way Piedmont's laid out. ...

A lot of these older homes may only have one- or two-car garages, and they may be very small garages where they can't fit two cars anyway, and it may be a family that has three or four cars, so they're relegated to parking in their driveways or out on the street, which makes them a target, automatically, because they're not in a nice secured garage. ... There's always gonna be auto thefts in Piedmont because of that. ... Our officers know that we're going to continually remind the public to take their valuables of their car and lock their cars at night. ...

We're not gonna have an influx of murders, we're not gonna have kidnappings, we're not gonna have rapes, we're not gonna have these violent types of crimes that we're surrounded by...

We just continue, we just keep going down the road... tackle it as it comes.


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