Susan Manheimer served as Interim Chief of the Oakland Police Department from April 2020 through January 2021. She spent the first 17 years of her career with the San Francisco Police Department, then was chief of the San Mateo, CA Police Department for 20 years. She spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about her time leading the Oakland Police Department.

Wexler: Tell me about the violent crime issues that occurred while you served as interim chief.

Chief Manheimer: Oakland had seen about five years of decreasing crime. There was a 50% reduction in violent gun crime over five years. And in the first quarter of 2020, we saw the same thing: a decline in gun crime.

But suddenly the pandemic hit, and we were under shelter-in-place orders by the end of March. As I came on to the job, we started to see dramatic increases in gun crime. I think we saw so much more crime in Oakland because of the economic downturn. During some quarters, gun crime was up 80%. For the year, it was about a 50% increase.

The volume of gunfire, guns and victimization in the community was simply staggering. I think it was caused by a variety of factors. Fortunately, we were able to dig into it very quickly, because we had a Crime Gun Intelligence Center (CGIC) and existing partnerships in the community. We were able to identify some of the driving factors, and home in and mitigate them.

I am stunned at the amount of violent crime in the Oakland community, particularly in Deep East Oakland, a community that was hit hard by the pandemic. It’s an area of socioeconomic challenges and disparities, and it was hard to see that level of tragedy. Sometimes we would see families who had rounds going through their home as they’re sitting down to dinner or watching television.

We got the city leaders on board with significant intervention. It included a high level of overtime, which later became an issue for the department as budget cuts impacted our ability to put those resources out there.

Wexler: Aside from the pandemic, what were the key factors driving the increase in crime?

Chief Manheimer:  I was in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco during the crack epidemic, so I had some experience with how violent gun crime can be driven by a few key factors. In Oakland, it was a confluence of economic pressure, the slowdown of the criminal justice system, including zero bail or accountability for possessing guns, the release of prisoners without reentry plans, and the slowdown in the courts to the point where there really was not any accountability for gun crimes. You literally had to have a victim murdered for the perpetrator to stay in jail. We had to meet with our criminal justice partners to tell them that we can’t keep arresting people in this catch-and-release program. In Oakland, we give gun offenders a lot of opportunities to put their guns down. But if they won’t, we need to have accountability.

I think the other key factors are that there’s no structure in folks’ lives anymore. There are increasing job and financial pressures. And there’s just an interruption in the regular course of structure and supportive mechanisms.

Wexler: So will this violent crime increase be a statistical aberration, or is it the beginning of a trend?

Chief Manheimer:  It depends on several things. How quickly do we recover from this pandemic? How quickly can we infuse resources and stability back into our areas that are most challenged by the violence and the pandemic? And how quickly can our criminal justice system again respond to the highest levels of violence? It will depend on how we respond to those three questions, especially in an era of looming budget cuts to policing and calls for reform and defunding.

I don’t think Oakland is facing anything all that different from what a lot of our urban centers are facing. But the impacts of COVID are much more dramatic in areas that are financially and socially challenged in the first place.

Wexler: How do Oakland residents in neighborhoods with the highest levels of violence feel about the police and police reform?

Chief Manheimer: It’s a crash of ideology and reality in our most challenged areas. We’re seeing it in the discussion about reimagining the Oakland Police Department, which started out as a call to defund 50% of the department’s budget.  

Oakland has already made a lot of the reforms. It wasn’t a stretch for us to accomplish the “8 Can’t Wait.” We were pretty much there already, and we embraced the reforms.

But the discussion turned from “defunding” to “reimagining” policing, and it became a big source of contention even within the reimagining policing task force that our city council put together.

The discussion started with a call to defund by 50%, but those in our Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities said, “We’re not interested in how much money you cut from the police; we’re interested in how to keep Black and Brown communities safe. That should not be a lack of policing. That should be policing that is effective, empathic, and polices constitutionally. We don’t want to get rid of policing, because we’re under severe attack within our communities with this gun crime.”

We saw this big tension about what makes a safer community. Those who believe that less policing will mean fewer guns in the community and less crime were up against those with the lived experience in their communities who need their police.

You have to find that balance. I always believe that if we’re not sitting at the table, we’re going to be on the menu. It’s hard for me at times to not become defensive. But I recognized early on that we must embrace the movement and the concepts behind it, which is a desire for safe, constitutional policing. Then you educate people about what it means if you take away all police guns, or what happens if you don’t have enough officers to respond to all calls for service.

I think there’s an opportunity for police and law enforcement leaders to optimize this transformational moment in policing. Be at the table, be a neutral subject matter expert, and be open to innovation. In the 1990s, community policing gave us responsibility to be the problem-solver for all problems, but without the resources. Can we move some of the field response responsibilities back to others?

Wexler: How long has Oakland been under a consent decree?

Chief Manheimer: 17 years.

Wexler: Do you see a day when Oakland will come out from under that consent decree?

Chief Manheimer: Absolutely. I was on that path, and I believe the new chief will be as well. It takes staffing and resources to be relentlessly focused on meeting all of those 50+ requirements and tasks. When you have thin staffing and so many high-priority issues, it’s a challenge to keep so many administrative resources consistently dedicated to consent decree requirements. Police departments don’t necessarily have deep planning, research, administrative, and analyst support for data tracking that is focused on performance management, rather than crime.

I believe we got closer during my tenure, and I believe they’ll be able to get out of it within the next year or two.

Chuck Wexler: Let’s talk about your new experience as an interim chief, compared to the bulk of your career, as a permanent chief. How long were you the interim chief in Oakland?

Chief Manheimer: I was there ten months. It started out as a six-month contract, then the city gave me two two-month extensions.

Wexler: How long were you police chief in San Mateo?

Chief Manheimer: Twenty years.

Wexler: What are the opportunities and challenges of serving as an interim chief?

Chief Manheimer: It’s very different. Generally, when you’re an interim, you come in following some sort of abrupt change in leadership. So one of the challenges and charges is to provide transition and stability.

Along with that, it’s important to remember that you’re not there to set a vision for the future, and it’s not about you. You’re there to channel and focus on the people of Oakland, the city leaders, and the department moving forward. So you need to quickly become aware of the different lenses that people have for seeing things, the demands, and the values, and translating those into what’s best for Oakland and the Police Department. But it’s not about your vision and values in the way it would be for a chief taking over for the longer term.

Wexler: As an interim chief, are you able to make any significant changes?

Chief Manheimer: I was chief for a relatively short time, but it was a consequential period of time, so I don’t think I had the luxury of not making changes. The moment demanded changes. The important thing is to ensure that any changes you make are sustainable for the longer term. That means you need to work with the city leaders, policymakers, and, in the case of Oakland, your many forms of oversight.

Then you need to have buy-in, perspective, and awareness from the command staff of the department.

It becomes almost leadership by democracy, rather than just the vision of the police chief. You have to thread the needle, recognizing that you may need to depend on others to give you context.



In Friday’s Daily Report about supporting officer wellness during the pandemic and civil unrest, we asked members to share information about their agencies’ wellness initiatives. We received the following message from Greensboro, NC Chief Brian James:

“Last summer I announced that the Greensboro Police Department would begin to do updated psychological testing of police officers.  Previously, this was only required upon initial hiring, after a critical incident, or after issues were observed with the officer.  This will be done at 5-year intervals of an officer’s career, and will be done after the first year of sworn service. 

“I also announced that we would offer expanded access to officers as well as Crime Scene Investigators to mental health care.  This program is voluntary and will provide 12 visits per calendar year to a mental health provider chosen from a list of mental health counselors.  This program is anticipated to begin in July of this year.  Our updated psychological test began in January.”


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.