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Two former Oakland police officers received the department’s highest bravery award, the Medal of Valor, on Friday, for actions they took Jan. 20 to assist a severely injured California Highway Patrol officer.
But Officers Matthew Lopez and Megan Sheridan, who risked their lives during a confrontation with an armed robbery suspect, were wearing the uniforms of the Hayward Police Department — which they joined two weeks ago because they feared they might be included in the next round of Oakland police layoffs.
Lopez and Sheridan — possibly the first female Oakland officer to win the Medal of Valor — were among 14 officers and a civilian technician to be honored with awards at a City Hall ceremony.
Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts told the audience the awards and recognition ceremony were “to celebrate these heroes, celebrate their heroism.”
Courage comes in different ways, Batts said, from “rushing into a line of bullets” to making difficult decisions others might not like. He said officers and civilian employees “don’t always get the praise they deserve. Few can do this job. I am very proud of the employees of this organization.”
The Oakland Police Department’s SWAT team has won a prestigious competition, seven months after two team members, as well as two other officers, were shot and killed in confrontation with a wanted parolee.
“We’re very happy after what we all went through earlier this year,” Oakland police spokesman Jeff Thomason said Tuesday, referring to the March 21 incident in which the four officers were killed.
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern announced Monday night that the Oakland Police Department is the 2009 winner of the Urban Shield SWAT competition, which was held over the weekend and drew 27 tactical teams from all over the world, including Boston and France.
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. J.D. Nelson said the announcement was met with a standing ovation by more than 1,500 people who attended the awards ceremony at the U.S.S. Hornet in Alameda.
He said the crowd chanted “OPD” as a show of support for the Oakland Police Department.
Nelson said the tactical teams were judged on 25 tactical situations at locations throughout the Bay Area over the course of 48 hours in what many consider to be the toughest tactical training exercise in the country.
In a statement, Ahern, whose department hosted the competition and also competed in it, said of the Oakland police tactical team, “It was obvious by the way they competed they were on a mission to win this for their fallen brothers. Everyone in the crowd was very proud and emotional at their well-deserved victory.”
Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said he’s “very proud” of the tactical team and “this is truly a great accomplishment despite facing much adversity this year.”
The members of Oakland’s winning team are Sgts. Pat Gonzales and Roland Holmgren and Officers Frank Uu, Chris Saunders, Casey Johnson, Anwawn Jones, Shane Tarum and Marty Ziebarth.
According to Oakland police, in the March 21 incident parolee Lovelle Mixon shot and killed Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege when they made a traffic stop on him at 74th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard.
Police said Mixon then fled to his sister’s apartment about a block away at 2755 74th Ave. and killed Sgts. Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai when they and other members of the SWAT team entered the apartment.
One bullet grazed Gonzales’s protective helmet and a second bullet entered and exited his shoulder. He was treated and released after the incident.
Mixon was eventually shot and killed by other officers.
Oakland’s SWAT team was temporarily removed from action after the incident because Romans and Sakai were unit leaders and new leaders had to be trained.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s detail handled Oakland’s SWAT calls for more than two months, but Oakland’s SWAT team went back into operation in late May.
Thomason said Sakai’s widow, Jennifer Sakai, and Gonzales accepted the award on behalf of Oakland’s SWAT team.
When a headhunter called Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts in March and asked him whether he was interested in becoming Oakland’s next chief, Batts knew the answer: No.
“I was happy in Long Beach,” Batts said during his first public appearance Monday since accepting the chief’s job in Oakland.
But everything changed three days later, on March 21: four Oakland police officers were gunned down in the deadliest day for law enforcement in the city. Batts viewed the television coverage.
“I watched the pain and the suffering in the Police Department,” he said. “I watched the pain and the suffering in the community as it too hurt at the same time.”
After attending the officers’ funeral at the Oracle Arena, Batts said he text-messaged the headhunter: “I want to help.”
Batts told police, community members, political leaders and the news media who showed up at City Hall on Monday to meet him that the events of March 21 and its aftermath affected him profoundly.
“I saw the pain on both sides,” he said. “I saw the disconnect between both sides, and I wondered if I, in some small way, could make a difference.”
Mayor Ron Dellums said that it was a “community consensus” that the next chief be selected from outside the department.
In an 11-minute speech, the new chief repeatedly praised the heroes in the department. He intertwined his own history with that of the grittiest corners of Oakland. He spoke of his own childhood in South Central Los Angeles, where he said drugs, prostitution and gangs affected his life.
The 49-year-old chief said that when he was a child, he asked his mother, “Does anybody care that young people who look like me are losing their lives on these streets?”
“That became a passion to me, and even now, it touches me,” he said.
When he was in the running for the job, Batts flew up to Oakland and walked the neighborhoods of the city, asking residents what they thought about crime and quality of life in their part of town.
An Oakland Raiders fan since 1970, Batts joked that it was the real reason he took on the job.
City Administrator Dan Lindheim said Batts will earn at least the $230,802 he earns in Long Beach and have a contract for several years.
Batts established a national reputation in Long Beach for community policing, which emphasizes closer relationships between police and residents. But Batts also said the fight against crime is not the role of police alone.
“The way that you solve crime is that citizens have to say, this took place, this was what the guy looked like and this is his license plate,” he said. In Long Beach, “that’s what community policing did for us.”
Oakland’s new police chief, Anthony Batts, is a 30-year veteran of the Long Beach Police Department who is well regarded by rank-and-file officers and gained a reputation as chief for his support of community policing.
In naming Batts to Oakland’s top law enforcement position on Wednesday, Mayor Ron Dellums said that under Batts’ leadership, the crime rate in Long Beach dropped to its lowest point since 1975.
Long Beach Vice Mayor Val Lerch said Batts restructured the department and deployed officers in a way that dramatically lowered crime.
Lerch, the chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, said Batts also “surrounded himself with really, really good people and got out of their way and let them do their jobs.”
Oakland and Long Beach have similarities. They’re both port cities and both have diverse populations. Long Beach has roughly 91,000 more people than Oakland.
However, Oakland’s crime rate is nearly three times higher than that of Long Beach, at 21 incidents per 1,000 residents, according to an analysis of 2008 crime statistics from the California Department of Justice. Oakland’s homicide rate is also about three times higher than Long Beach’s. The two cities have similar per capita officer ratios.
Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said union members prefer to see one of their own – in this case Acting Chief Howard Jordan – rise to the top. Nonetheless, Arotzarena said he hoped Batts would continue building the “positive relationship” that Jordan built.
“We’ve heard good things about him,” said Arotzarena.
Police officers and elected officials in Long Beach raved about Batts.
“It’s a sad day for us,” said Lt. Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association.
James said Batts got involved in the community and cared about the rank and file, too. When an officer was killed in 2000, James said, Batts provided leadership to soothe the ranks. When two officers were critically wounded in a gunfight two years ago, Batts held a vigil at the hospital for days, took care of the officers’ families and mounted every resource imaginable to find the assailant – which they did.
“I would almost always rather a chief come from the inside,” said James. “But if I were the Oakland Police Officers Association, I would feel confident that I was getting somebody who would be the next best thing. … Wherever he goes, he’ll be successful.”