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David Onek — Law Enforcement Facilitator

• March 03, 2011 • 5:00 AM

David Onek works to bring together stakeholders in the criminal justice system who often agree — usually without knowing they do.

Improving the juvenile justice system has been the focus of David Onek‘s professional life for some 20 years. He uses an innovative approach that might seem obvious but has been underutilized: He gets everyone in the field talking to each other.

Onek’s experience in influential policy, governmental and academic positions in the San Francisco Bay Area has led him to believe that because of sharp disagreements dividing them, law enforcement officers, members of community groups, prisoners and corrections officers are unable to bridge much smaller gaps on many issues — or even to realize how much they do agree on.

Onek can bring the players in the criminal justice arena together because he’s tackled the issues from most sides. He’s counseled adolescents with mental health and substance abuse problems and written reports for the U.S. Justice Department on best practices in juvenile detention. As head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, he led the coordination of law enforcement agencies in San Francisco and served on the civilian oversight board of the city’s police force. Most recently, he was the founding executive director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice at Boalt Hall School of Law, where he remains today as a senior fellow.

I first met Onek in the early 1990s playing pickup basketball at a public court in San Francisco. The period was one of great concern over crime — concern that was often out of step with the statistics Onek was then collecting at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Onek’s prior experience working with the kids who were anonymized in data sets was crucial to shaping his opinions about what children in trouble with the law really needed. He hoped to reconcile the public’s perception of crime with, as he puts it, “what the research was showing actually worked.”

March-April 2011 Miller-McCune More than a dozen years after I left San Francisco, Onek and I reconnected. He was just starting the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast, a co-production of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which features in-depth 30-minute interviews with a wide range of law enforcement officials, policymakers, advocates, service providers, academics and others. It’s a public forum for the consistent themes of Onek’s professional life.

We spoke on a bright June day in a conference room next door to the Transamerica Building, with a redwood tree outside the window. The day before, he had filed to run for San Francisco District Attorney in 2011.

Miller-McCune: How have things turned out differently than you expected?

David Onek: In the early days, I did not have a lot of experience working with law enforcement. I really began to get that experience when I worked for the W. Haywood Burns Institute in San Francisco, which is a nonprofit that is focused on reducing the overrepresentation of youth of color in the system. The founder of the Burns Institute [is] James Bell. A big part of his philosophy was that you really had to bring law enforcement to the table and work with them in order to achieve change. I hadn’t had the same type and level of experience working collaboratively with law enforcement before that. …

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David Onek

David Onek


I then went to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice [in San Francisco] where my job was to help coordinate all the different law enforcement agencies in the city as well as the community-based agencies. I really began to see things clearly from both sides and see how hard it was to get folks to work together. What I’m trying to do is bring those folks together and see where we can have agreement on practical solutions.

One of, really, the leading innovations, is instead of just having officers who are responding to calls in their cars — and you might respond to the same house 10 times over two weeks — to say, “What’s actually at the heart of this? What’s causing this problem? How can we all work together to stop it?” That’s much more efficient, that makes a lot more sense, and it leads to increased public safety. It’s saying, “What is the root problem here, and is there something that we can do about it?” By “we,” it’s not just the police. It might be that there’s a house where the city attorney’s nuisance unit could come in and deal with problems at that house. It could be street lighting, so we need to bring in the Department of Public Works to really improve the lighting in this area. It could be that the kids in the area don’t have after-school activities, so you try to get Rec[reation] and Parks involved, or you try to get a community-based organization involved.

M-M: How do you build a criminal justice think tank from scratch, and how did you want it to be different from centers with a similar focus?

DO: The main way I wanted to differentiate it right from the beginning was this idea of being able to bring everybody to the table. There’s a lot more agreement than disagreement on criminal justice issues. You would never know it because the rhetoric on both sides is very extreme and very ideological. If you ask a police officer what he thinks the problems are and how they need to be solved, and if you ask a street outreach worker from a community-based organization, they’re going to agree on 80 percent of the solutions. Now, I’m not naive; there are 20 percent [of the solutions] they’re never going to agree on, and that’s OK. What happens is ideology gets in the way of people coming together and just a lack of personal connections. [class name="dont_print_this"]

The Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast

Click this image to listen to the latest episode of The Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast with David Onek.

[/class] There are folks in the community who just feel like they would never work with a police officer. There are officers who feel like, “The community is just always criticizing us.” Both sides have stories that can justify the way they feel. But the bottom line is, if you want to solve this problem, law enforcement can’t solve it alone, and the community can’t solve it alone. You definitely need to work together. Police are not the only people who should be preventing crime. I actually think police can do more to prevent crime, but police need to work hand in hand with the community. Any programs that you have – the Police Activities League where police are coaching young men and women in sports; San Francisco has a wilderness program where officers take kids on camping trips and stuff – those are relatively small programs, but I think they make a real difference. There’s just such a high level of distrust in almost any urban community between certain parts of the community and the police department.

I felt like the center could really be a catalyst for bringing sides together to work collaboratively on issues toward consensus-based solutions. So, that’s really how I wanted to be different.

M-M: Give an example of how you’ve done that.

DO: At the Berkeley Center, we started a project on increasing employment opportunities for people who’ve had convictions. It’s very difficult for them to get jobs, and this leads to [situations in which] they offend again, which leads to more victimization. It just seemed obvious to me that it’s in everyone’s best interest to get jobs for these folks.

There is a box on many employment forms that says, “Have you ever been convicted of felony?” And if you check it, the fear is that you’re discriminated against, and no one even looks at your application. But I went to a meeting, right after I started, of folks from different advocacy groups who were advocating for the employment rights of formerly incarcerated people, and a lot of formerly incarcerated people said they won’t even apply for jobs when they see that box.

The idea was if you take that box off, people can go through the application process. They can still be screened later in the process, but at least at that point, the employer has gotten to know them, and they can offer a fair recommendation.

There were formerly incarcerated advocates there, public defenders, the ACLU — basically, the usual suspects. What I said — and I thought I might get booted out of the room — I said, “This is great, but you’re preaching to the choir here. You’re not going to have success just talking to the people in this room. You need to partner with law enforcement on this and bring employers to the table, too, because they’re part of the picture.” To my surprise, somewhat, a number of people said, “You’re exactly right, but we don’t know how to do that. We don’t have relationships with law enforcement, and we don’t know how to bring them to the table.” I said, “Well, I just started this center for exactly this purpose.”

So, being at Berkeley law school, we had the research capacity to look around the country at what the best practices are in terms of increasing employment opportunities for people with prior convictions and to bring that information to the table and share it with a wide, diverse coalition of folks. Really, the key was this advisory board. … We wanted it to be about a third law enforcement, a third advocates and formerly incarcerated folks, and about a third employers. What I said to everyone from the beginning was, “Sure there’s going to be disagreement, but there’s going to be a lot more agreement than disagreement. Look for the things we agree on; I don’t think there’s any better vehicle to get things accomplished than this group. Whoever is reading these recommendations will be able to look at the advisory board and see at least one or two people that they know and trust, and say, “If this person signed off, then I’m OK with it.”

I’m happy to say that report will be coming out soon. [It has since been released.] …We don’t want folks from the center out there pushing it; we want the advisory board members. We want the sheriff to take it to the Sheriff’s Association and each member to take it to their groups and get people on board.

M-M: You’re a big advocate of data, and the importance of quality social science research guiding policy decisions.

DO: There certainly is a movement throughout the system to begin to rely more and more on data. A study was done by Anthony Braga at Harvard, who then continued the study with my center at Berkeley, showing that San Francisco shootings, over 50 percent of the shootings were happening in 2 percent of the land mass. Now, for folks who work here that’s not that surprising a statistic. But having the data confirms what everyone’s saying. And to say, “Wow, if we really put resources into this 2 percent of the city we can make a significant impact on violence.”

So the police department, based on that study, put something together called their Violence Reduction Plan, which had five areas in the city with, by far, the highest number of shootings and changed deployment patterns to really focus officers on those five areas. Last year, San Francisco had an over 50 percent drop in homicides. Now, we can’t say there’s a specific cause and effect; that’s hard to do. But there’s no question that that played a key role in it.

M-M: How do you do that without creating a sense in the community that they’re in an occupied territory?

DO: Great question. First of all, it’s through communication and partnerships. I think there was some room for improvement in the way the SFPD did it here, actually. You want the community to be at the table with you looking at the data and saying, “Wow, we, together, need to put our resources here.”

There’s a guy named Tracy [Litthcut] who ran the Street Outreach Program in Boston. It was a partnership with both the police department and with Harvard University. Tracy would be asked to go to Harvard to go to these meetings. He was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I came up on the streets; I’m working with these kids on the streets. Why in the world am I going to go to Harvard and listen to these professors talk?” He just went with an attitude. But after a few meetings, he started to realize that the data that the Harvard folks were showing him could help him do his job much better.

So, you need to work with the community as well, so the community understands exactly what you’re doing. It’s not alerting the community; the community should be inviting you in. That’s what problem solving is, right? [Getting] the community to say, “Hey, we’re having a problem on this street. We really need more policing here.” And then you’re going in with the permission of the community.

M-M: What are some examples of best practices in juvenile justice reform that show promise?

DO: There’s something called a risk assessment instrument, which is an objective instrument — and it’s key that it be objective — that gives offenders a score based on a variety of factors such as their current offense, their prior offenses and other things. If a youth scores over a certain score, the default is that they should be locked up. If they’re in the middle range, it means they should be released under some kind of community supervision. If it’s very low, then they should just be released outright. Probation officers always have the ability to override that, but you need to check that very closely because if they’re overriding all the time, then there’s no point in even having the instrument. You want to make sure they say the reason that they’re overriding and track that.

It can be very effective. You need to make sure, however, that the objective instrument is fair. For example, instruments sometimes used to say, “Do they have a stable family at home?” A lot of low-income kids or youth of color do come from a single-parent household, so, they shouldn’t be penalized for that. A better question would be is there adequate supervision; not whether it’s a two-parent or a one-parent household.

Another question that caused a lot of problems is gang affiliation, because if there’s no proof of whether someone’s in a gang or not, if a kid just dresses a certain way and is from a certain neighborhood and a certain ethnicity, you don’t want the probation officer to say, “Oh yes, might be gang involved.” Suddenly, they get more points and then are locked up just because they dress the way they dress.

M-M: Why did you start the podcast?

DO: So much of what the general public hears about criminal justice policy is just a brief sound bite on the evening news. There’s some terrible homicide, and you get a five-second sound bite — let’s lock everyone up. You don’t really get to the nuances. I didn’t really feel like there was a forum where issues could be discussed in an in-depth way, to really give people a half an hour to have a much more relaxed, detailed, in-depth discussion about criminal justice policy.

I look for police chiefs who really focus on working with the community to talk about that. Folks from that community who have understood the importance of working with law enforcement, I get them on the show to talk about that, as well as the other theme we’re talking about: data-driven decision-making. A lot of leading practitioners of that in the law enforcement community are folks that I’ve had on the program.

I really want listeners to get to know these people so that if there’s somebody from the community who doesn’t have a lot of interactions with police officers or police chiefs, listening to these chiefs talk about the importance of working with the community and specific examples of ways they’ve worked with the community effectively, that can be very powerful. Chief George Gascon from San Francisco talked about the over-criminalization in the African-American community and the effect that has had on African-American families.

At the same time, for my law enforcement listeners, I want them to hear people like Joe Marshall, the head of the Omega Boys Club here, which is a terrific program in San Francisco that has sent many, many young people to college and helped many turn their lives around and turn away from a life of crime. He talked about the importance of the community working with law enforcement and the community stepping up to the plate. He said things like, “OK, if the police do something wrong, the community is marching on City Hall. They should be upset, and they should hold the police accountable. But why is it when one neighbor shoots another neighbor, I can’t get anybody from the community to stand up and be angry and to do anything to try to stop that from happening?” Well, that’s something that law enforcement officials aren’t used to hearing.

M-M: What do the data say about why nonwhite youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system?

DO: We know, if we look at the data, we can have a system that is much more rational, that is much more cost effective and that greatly improves public safety. It actually leads to worse outcomes for those young people if they are thrown in with people who do need to be incarcerated. Is there something about the way the system works — what the prosecutors are doing, what the probation officers are doing, what the judges are doing — that is treating certain kids differently than other kids, whether intentionally or not intentionally? So obviously it’s a very, very, difficult issue, and the trick is how do you get people to come around and talk about an issue that is this sensitive without finger-pointing and saying, “You’re racist; I’m not racist,” because obviously you’re not going to get anywhere if that’s the case.

In most places, when you look closely, there are little things in the system that are affecting certain groups more than others. Here’s a really basic one: A lot of detention facilities say, “We’re not going to release you unless a parent comes and picks you up.” Seems so reasonable, right? A kid who’s just been arrested, you want to release to their parents. If you have a kid that lives in a low-income, single-parent family where if the mom leaves work to get the kid, they’re fired or they lose an afternoon’s pay, or the kid’s living with the grandparent who’s not the official guardian, or if the child’s parent is undocumented, it’s going to be very hard for them to come to retrieve their child.

When you think about it — do we really need the rule to be a parent? Couldn’t there be a rule that we need a responsible adult or one of their primary caregivers to come and pick them up? What’s wrong with an aunt picking them up?

Another way a lot of youth of color are overrepresented is when you look at warrants for failure to appear [in court]. There are things that can be done that are really simple. Like, just call them. When you have a dentist appointment, don’t you get a call from your dentist a week before saying you have an appointment next week? And you’re a semi-functioning adult.

As a teenager, if you go to court, and they’re saying, “We want you to come back to court three months from Wednesday at 9 a.m.” — that’s like an eternity to kids. Then you don’t show up, and the next time a cop picks you up, you’re arrested. And in most places if you’re arrested on a warrant, you are automatically locked up, even if the thing that you were in there to begin with was very minor.

There are all kinds of common-sense solutions out there so that youth are not inappropriately detained. Santa Cruz is really the best example of that. Santa Cruz locks up far less kids than it used to. It is much fairer in its policies in terms of Latino kids being treated similarly to white kids. Their crime rate has plummeted. All of these things happened simultaneously.

In Santa Cruz, the court was in the northern part of the county, and a lot of the kids — particularly the low-income Latino kids — are from the southern part of the county, who often did not have a way to get up to court in the northern part of the county. And the public transportation system was very poor. A lot of these kids wouldn’t make it to a 9 a.m. court date because of transportation challenges, even if they were well meaning.

As a system, you need to look at that and figure out what are some ways we can problem-solve. Maybe a court in the afternoon for certain areas, to make sure that kids have time to get up there; maybe open a satellite court down in that part of the county.

They were looking at how long people are staying in the system, and they found these Latino kids had just been there for a really, really long time. If you don’t look at the data broken down by race, you would never know this. So they investigated further, and they were all in for drug charges. They investigated further, and these kids were monolinguals — Spanish-speaking youth. So these kids had been the equivalent of convicted and were waiting to go to a program. They didn’t need to be locked up in juvenile hall, but there was nowhere to send them. So guess what? There was no drug treatment program for monolingual youth in the county, so they couldn’t find programs that these kids needed to go to.

It’s just a question of looking at your data, seeing what it finds, asking more questions, going back and getting more data. And the key thing is: OK, we have this data — what are we going to do, and how are we going to change our policies and practices in response?


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Paul Tullis
Paul Tullis has been writing and editing features for award-winning magazines off and on since 1993. He’s also worked as a screenwriter and as a producer of daily news, and he’s appeared as a news commentator on radio and cable news. He blogs on issues of policy and politics at and He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, who is a policy analyst, and two daughters.

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