Oakland Police Chief Wants "Good Witnesses," Not Armed Citizens

AP Photo/ Rick Bowmer

Armed citizens should observe and report violent attacks, rather than try to defend themselves or other innocent victims, according to Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. The chief’s statement came during a briefing on the arrest of a business owner in Oakland, California’s Chinatown earlier this week.

Armstrong made it clear that he is no fan of residents arming themselves for self-defense, even with a huge uptick in the number of robberies and assaults reported in the community. In his press briefing, the chief declared, “We don’t want our business owners or others to begin to arm themselves. We would really prefer them to be good witnesses.”

According to Armstrong, if you witness a woman being beaten and robbed outside of your store, you’re not supposed to intervene to stop the attack. Instead, you’re supposed to simply sit back and watch so you can tell police all about it after the fact.

“What we really don’t want to do is bring any additional issues that threaten safety into the equation,” Armstrong continued. “Having armed people out there tends to not be helpful. Officers sometimes have to determine who they’re trying to encounter and that also makes it unsafe for all of us. So while I appreciate those who have stepped forward and are looking to help our community members and be there and intervene, I think you can do that with your voices, you can do that with making phone calls to the OPD, but allowing us to come in and respond.”

The problem with that outlook is that police are rarely in a position to respond in time to stop an attack like the one that occurred Monday afternoon. Armstrong as much as admits that with his statement that citizens should watch a crime take place rather than try to save someone being robbed and assaulted, so they can offer their detailed description to police once they arrive.

The Oakland PD is bringing “community liaison officers” into Chinatown to help increase the number of crimes reported to police, but that’s far from the only issue at the moment.

As Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President, Carl Chan, explains — merchants and residents in Chinatown have trouble reporting crimes due to language barriers, fear of retaliation, and long wait times.

“These two officers in these communities that are non-English speaking, I think they will bring a resource that doesn’t currently exist,” Chan said. “It will give the community confidence that they can communicate directly with the Oakland Police Department in their own language.”

That’s a good move, but it doesn’t directly address the problem of the growing number of robberies and assaults that have been reported to police.

Even in Oakland, California citizens have the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and the defense of another. While I’m sure it would be easier for police if there were no legal gun owners out there, that’s both unrealistic and unconstitutional, yet Armstrong made it clear that he believes there’s no place for armed citizens defending themselves or others.

“What we’re saying to our community is that we don’t want anyone firing weapons into our community. Even though well-intentioned, what we cannot have is people firing guns at others in our community. And so we just want to make sure that we send a clear message that it’s important that we help one another and that we come together as a community, but it’s as important that we don’t put anybody else in harm’s way, right? That we don’t put any other lives at risk by firing firearms in our community.”

Armstrong was asked by a local reporter about the fact that police may not be able to respond to an attack in time to stop it. What are these people supposed to do when they see a crime being committed right in front of them? The chief’s response? Observe and report.

“We’ll get there as fast as we can, but introducing a firearm into a situation where a person’s life may not be at risk is really something that we discourage. We’re not talking about someone’s life being immediately taken, we’re talking about someone firing a weapon into the community when at that point it didn’t seem appropriate to do so.”

So, Armstrong believes that the robbery victim wasn’t facing a threat to her life, though it’s impossible to know if the attack would have escalated if not for the presence of the armed citizen who fired several rounds. After another reporter asked the chief about the growing number of private security guards in Chinatown as a result of the increased crime, Armstrong responded by once again dismissing the idea of armed self-defense.

“What we don’t want is to create a situation where people in our community feel like they need to resort to bringing out firearms and defending themselves. That’s where we begin to cause a greater issue for all of us.”

Armstrong admitted that violent crime is up across the city, not just in Chinatown. Carjackings are on the rise, as are homicides, yet he still insists that people protecting themselves is problematic.

As I mentioned in my first story on the arrest of the business owner, I’ve heard from a law enforcement officer in the Oakland area who says that officers on the scene did not want to make an arrest, but were directed to do so by a higher-up in the department. I reached out to the Oakland Police to see if they would confirm or deny that, but was directed instead to the video of the chief’s briefing, which makes no mention of who determined that the business owner should be taken into custody.

Since I couldn’t get a direct response from the police department, I’ve put in a request to interview Chief Armstrong, and I hope that the chief can carve out a few minutes to talk over the next couple of days. I’ve got some serious questions about his philosophy on armed citizens, why he believes that passively observing a violent crime being committed is more appropriate than defending yourself or others with a firearm, and whether or not the arrest on Monday was directed by officers on the scene or by top brass in the department.

As for the business owner himself, his case is now in the hands of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. The robber he stopped, on the other hand, fled the scene and hasn’t been taken into custody. For the moment, the only person arrested in connection with the attack is the man who stopped it.