2016 Writing Finalist

Taylor Telford

Indiana University
$1,500 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion


News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

With trust in the Oakland Police Department in danger after a series of scandals, Mayor Libby Schaaf is hoping the addition of 44 new officers will help the department recover.

Schaaf called for the new officers to rise above the scandals and emphasized the need for responsible policing.

“The issue of trust within communities is driven by police behavior,” Schaaf said. “Damage has been done in Oakland, California, by our police department.”

The Oakland Police Department is under investigation by internal affairs and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office after allegations of officers having sex with an underage girl. Now three officers have been placed on administrative leave as a result, and Schaaf said she is committed to holding officers accountable.

“When the actions of our officers are called into question, the public needs total confidence that allegations are taken seriously, investigations are thorough and fair, and offenders are held accountable,” Schaaf said in a press release.

The scandal came to light after the suicide of Officer Brendan O’Brien in the fall of 2015. O’Brien left a suicide note which allegedly alluding to his involvement with the girl. It also implicated three other officers.

The investigation is ongoing, but Schaaf has already made changes to ensure strict discipline of officers. She issued an executive order requiring any allegations of officer misconduct be reported directly to the district attorney in whichever county the incident occurred.

The executive order is in some ways a departure for Schaaf. In the past, she’s garnered criticism for siding too much with the police, especially from protest groups.

On her fifteenth day in office, a group of Black Lives Matter protestors came to her house at 5 a.m. with bullhorns and neon signs. They were angry about how Schaaf had spent her first day as Mayor of Oakland — 18 hours of face time with the police department.

But in a video of a May 13 press conference outlining the department’s new standards, Schaaf stood with the people.

She seemed uncharacteristically ruffled, stumbling over some words as she spoke of the department’s tarnished reputation.

“We know that this department needs to be the trusted guardians of this community,” Schaaf said. “We know that they cannot do that with this type of cloud over the department.”

Oakland is a city known for racial tension, especially between the people and police. Schaaf’s time in office has already seen rowdy protests over officer-involved shootings of black men. That mistrust of police is often well founded, Schaff said, and she hopes the induction of new officers into the Oakland Police Department will be a step in the right direction.

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On her fifteenth day in office, Libby Schaaf awoke to people calling her name through bullhorns.

“Wake up, Libby!”

“No sleeping on the job!”

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and 50 people celebrated by circling up outside her $615,000 house. By drawing chalk outlines of bodies on the pavement and projecting King’s quotes on her garage door.

They called it a people’s inauguration. They said it was a response to how she spent her first day as Mayor of Oakland — an 18-hour day with the Oakland Police Department.

They chanted, asking her to come outside and talk.

She stayed in.

Later, she said she’d be happy to hear people’s concerns during city hall’s business hours.

Schaaf often speaks of her love affair with her hometown, which started with her volunteering and spurred her to run for office. But through her time in office, she’s been forced to accept that it may not be completely in love with her.

Schaaf got her start in politics working as an aide to Ignacio De La Fuente, a former city council president. She worked as an aide to Jerry Brown, and as a city council member. When she was elected in 2014, she blew away the other mayoral candidates, winning 63 percent of the vote and unseating the incumbent mayor, Jean Quan.

Schaaf’s struggles to connect with Oaklanders are in some ways inevitable. She’s a white woman with an upper-middle class background in a historically black city with extreme wealth inequality.

Rather than shying away from these factors, Schaaf tries to confront them directly, said Erica Derryck, Schaaf’s director of communications.

“She’s always going to be the white, female mayor of Oakland,” Derryck said. “But she’s born and raised here. She went to Skyline High School. She has all these experiences here that inform how she thinks about things.”

Although Schaaf is more than familiar with Oakland’s character, she often finds herself at odds as she tries to manage its rebellious streak.

One night last May, a large group of Oakland protesters went from peaceful to wild. They shattered shop windows, started fires and vandalized cars.

In response, Schaaf called actions of the protesters cowardly. She forbid nighttime protests without permits, which cost $300 each and took 30 days to issue.

While business owners applauded Schaaf’s decision, the protesters were outraged, saying Schaaf was infringing on First Amendment rights. A group disobeyed the order, and were met by a large police force. Some arrests were made, but since then, Oakland hasn’t seen any more protests turn violent or unruly.

Derryck said Schaaf’s management of the protesters was a key moment which allowed Schaaf to end a cycle of disorderly protests that had started with Oakland’s Occupy movement during Jean Quan’s term.

“We had been in this era in Oakland from occupy of having this expectation of violence, vandalism and damage to property, and it was just kind of a cycle,” Derryck said. “It was a seminal moment for us, where we got to determine how are we going to engage with the protest community. How do we go from the theatre of protest to actually talking about where the real issues are?”

Beyond the protests, Schaaf is also straining to reconcile the city’s recent economic boom with its existing wealth gap.

Last September, Uber purchased the historic Sears building in downtown Oakland for $123.5 million, planning to use it as its global headquarters. The company’s arrival has brought influx of wealth into the city, as well as a flood of concerns.

To quell fears surrounding Uber’s arrival, Schaaf penned a letter to the company with a list of ways it could ensure it brought prosperity, rather than contribute to the city’s formidable wealth gap.

In the letter, Schaaf recommended Uber make extensive hires from Oakland, create new jobs and stimulate the economy by supporting local Oakland businesses. She even invented a word for the responsible integration of tech money and resources into the city: techquity.

“We need to find ways to hold this new sector accountable for shared prosperity, for supporting the local economy and not displacing it,” Schaaf said.

Schaaf got the chance to play white knight to her city when it became a target of Donald Trump, who called it one of the most dangerous cities in America.

“Let me be clear,” Schaaf said in response via tweet. “The most dangerous place in America is Donald Trump’s mouth.”

Schaaf’s response made headlines, and brought a swell of support from her beloved city.

As she approaches the halfway point of her second year, Schaaf is still learning how to navigate Oakland. She can’t please everyone, but she’s made peace with that. The shock of her rocky welcome has faded, and even turned into a joke with her children.

One morning when Schaaf was running late to take her children to school, her son teased her.

“Do I have to call the protesters to come wake you up earlier?”

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SAN FRANCISCO — Mauro Aguilar’s girlfriend was banging on the door, trying to rush him out of the shower. But it was the first one he’d had in a long time, so he ignored her as he stood in the steam, savoring the comfort and privacy.

“Baby, please,” his girlfriend whined outside. “I want my turn too.”

Aguilar turned off the water and put on the same dirty clothes he’d had on before. He stepped out of the shower and into the street, where dozens of other homeless San Franciscans were waiting for their chance to get clean.

Aguilar was one of roughly 50 people to take a free shower, courtesy of Lava Mae, a non-profit that transforms buses and trailers into mobile bathrooms. Six days a week, workers and volunteers take the bathrooms throughout San Francisco, from the San Francisco Public Library to the Tenderloin.

San Francisco’s homeless population has surpassed 7,000, according to the 2015 San Francisco homeless count report. The city government is floundering, unable to meet the population’s most basic needs. With two busses and a trailer, Lava Mae is delivering an essential comfort and dignity.

Carlton Koonce, a coordinator for Lava Mae, spent 20 years living on the streets. There are only a handful of shower stalls available to the homeless in San Francisco outside of those in homeless shelters, Koonce said, and they often hard to access or poorly maintained.

“When you’re on the street, finding a shower is so hard that it’s not really at the top of your list of things to figure out,” Koonce said. “But there’s such a need for this and you can just see what a difference it makes when people come out so refreshed.”

People lugged their belongings onto the sidewalk by the Lava Mae trailer. From a distance, it looked like a party — people greeted their friends, played music. Some joked about their scents as they waited in line.

“I know, I know, it’s been a few weeks,” one man said apologetically.

“You gonna be nice or mean today?” Koonce teased Richard Lake, one of Lava Mae’s first regulars.

Lake responded with a few wheezy notes from his tarnished harmonica.

“Ask me again after my shower.”

After years of living without shelter, Lake said he remains disappointed at how few resources are available when there are so many people in need.

“There’s never enough options when it comes to hygiene,” Lake said. “You’d think something like this should be obvious, but I guess it isn’t.”

Lake is right — it isn’t obvious. Lava Mae is the only organization in the country to bring mobile showers to the homeless, but they’ve been inundated with requests by people who want to bring the idea to their own cities.

Jasmin Kozowy learned about Lava Mae from a short feature by Al Jazeera America and decided she wanted to replicate it in Los Angeles. She spent six months in San Francisco learning how to negotiate the technicalities — permits, volunteer schedules and donations.

After all the office work, Kozowy was thrilled to finally be working in the street, hooking up hoses and seeing Lava Mae in action. She greeted each customer cheerfully, grinning as she took each person’s birthdate and full name — information Lava Mae keeps to track their regulars and personalize their experiences.

Some customers took advantage of Kozowy’s newness. A one-legged man in a wheel-chair tried to add his name to the list, openly holding a syringe and a small packet in his hand. Kozowy began to add his name and tried to make conversation, but Koonce stopped her.

“Dude, are you kidding me?” Koonce threw his hands up. “You know you can’t be here with that shit.”

Kozowy looked confused as the man grumbled and rolled off down the street.

“You gotta be careful with stuff like that. He had the needle right in his hand and he was still thinking he’d get on the list,” Koonce said.

Kozowy was wide-eyed.

“He had narcotics? I didn’t notice that at all.”

A self-proclaimed “dog-whisperer” took her dog into the stall with her, along with a hiking backpack with shopping bags lashed to it. After the 20-minute time limit had passed, Koonce knocked on the door, telling her to wrap it up.

No answer.

Koonce gave her another five minutes and knocked again. And again. When she finally emerged, she shuffled away quickly, yanking the dog along.

The floor of her stall was littered with powder and needles.

“We can’t let her back in here again,” he said. “She left way too much evidence.”

While some customers like the dog-whisperer used the showers as an outlet for addiction, most were just itching to get clean. Some were on a tight schedule, washing up before heading off to work. Others lingered after they the finished, complimenting each other on their improved scents and looks.

Aguilar smoked a cigarette while his girlfriend took her shower. Before she’d gone in, she’d asked for a razor and winked at him.

The two met through various addiction programs, and now they stick together. Having someone to be with softens some of the pains of being homeless, Aguilar said, but it doesn’t fix everything.

He leans back and runs a hand over his freshly-washed, close-shaven head.

“It was almost a miracle, being in that water,” Aguilar. “Some things you forget you need.”

He sighs and stubs out his cigarette on the concrete.

“I hope my situation is temporary. But at the very least, I know where to get a shower now.”

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