Instead of vacant rowhomes, Oakland's troubled neighborhoods are more likely to consist of colorful one-story bungalows with fenced-in yards. Graffiti seems omnipresent. Large-scale growing of marijuana was legalized here, and the city is fighting to retain two of its pro sports franchises: the baseball Athletics and basketball's Golden State Warriors, who have their eye on more affluent cities in the Bay Area. Commercial strips include smog-check stations and Jack-in-the-Box restaurants.
Batts delivered a sobering assessment of the job ahead.
"The current reality is not very positive," he wrote in a message that prefaced a strategic plan for the department. "Oakland is not a safe community — it is in fact among the least safe and most violent in the U.S."
Nonetheless, he said that by 2015, it could be among the safest in California.
His frank talk impressed residents. "Everything I've seen from Chief Batts tells me he's playing his own game and not the City Council's game or the mayor's game or anyone else's game," a community leader told the Oakland Tribune. The news media were skeptical; one columnist said it was "like watching a boa constrictor dine: you just can't see how the animal is going to digest the meal without choking on it."
Batts doesn't regret the big talk. "Why not strive to be the best?" he says.
'An unbelievable mess'
For a city of 400,000 and with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country — last year it was fourth behind two Michigan cities, Flint and Detroit, and St. Louis — Batts had 800 officers, a figure that was slashed to 640 in his second year. In comparison, Baltimore, a city of 620,000, has 3,000 sworn officers.
Again, Batts reached out to ministers and attended community meetings, vowing to residents that he would be accountable.
"The grass did not grow under his feet — wherever the crime was, wherever the hurt was, that's where he went," said retired pastor J. Alfred Smith Sr., who led one of Oakland's largest congregations. "You're talking about a police chief with a doctorate and all the sophistication of academia, but whose humanity is intact."
But Dellums went back to Washington, and Batts saw looming concerns with any of the possible successors, including Jean Quan, an activist turned City Council member who would take the election. Dellums had been relatively hands-off, but Quan wanted stricter oversight that Batts said ground progress to a halt.
"Oakland is a fast-moving city that has issues on a constant basis, and you have to have the ability to move and react to those things," Batts said.
Just one month into Quan's term, word surfaced that Batts was a finalist to become the chief in San Jose. He didn't get the job, but to Quan and her staff, it seemed apparent that Batts was losing interest in Oakland.
"My assessment was that he was kind of an absent police chief," said Dan Siegel, a former Quan adviser. "His greatest success was in doing public relations and self-promotion. He did a great job going around to community groups, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, and talking a great line about himself and what he planned to do. A lot of people were very enthusiastic about him. But at the level of actually running the department, nothing happened on his watch."
His department would be taken to task by a federal judge, who threatened to take over control of the agency for failing to make progress on a federal oversight agreement. That deal stemmed from a police corruption case that predated Batts' tenure by nine years, and supporters say it was a near-impossible mandate with the city's red tape and scarce resources.
"It was an unbelievable mess, and I don't blame him one bit for leaving," said Geoff Collins, a businessman who led a foundation revived by Batts to raise money for police.
In his first full year, murders and violent crime continued on recent declines, and Batts said the results surpassed his expectations. But in 2011, murders increased as part of a broader spike in both violent crime and property crime.
Batts had been unable to gain approval for a juvenile curfew that he sought, and was blocked on his plan for new gang injunctions — adding more zones that specific individuals could be prevented by a judge from visiting. He had redeployed officers from community policing spots to pursue violent crime, but had a budget strained to the max.