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Commissioners testify about tense interactions with former Oakland police chief

Jurors heard from three former police commissioners on why they voted to fire Oakland police chief Anne Kirkpatrick in 2020.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Testimony in former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick’s whistleblower retaliation trial on Monday centered on her clashes with members of the Oakland police commission, whose belief in her leadership began to erode as personal conflicts cast a gloom over her tenure.

Jurors heard from former commissioners Ginale Harris, Thomas Smith and Jose Dorado on their decision to oust her without cause in 2020 with Mayor Libby Schaaf’s support, leading Kirkpatrick to sue the city. She claims she was fired for reporting corruption and misconduct within that body, but the commissioners said they thought she was no longer a good fit for Oakland.

Tensions between the police commission and Kirkpatrick came to a boiling point on Oct. 10, 2019, at a police commission meeting that ran late into the night. Around 10:30 p.m., Virginia Gleason deputy director at the Oakland Police Department, took the podium to present data on diversity and recruiting within the department.

In a lengthy clip of the hearing played for the jury, commission chair Regina Jackson stopped Gleason a minute or so in, saying the commission had very specific questions on the demographics of recruits, specifically applicants who had been passed over. Commissioner Ginale Harris echoed Jackson’s comment, adding that she’d been asking for specific data for five months and still had not received it.

The commissioners wanted to know, very specifically, why the department seemed to be having a problem recruiting and hiring Black women, and what the department’s efforts were to turn that around. Gleason floundered, insisting that she be allowed to get through her presentation, replete with quantifiable data and bright circle graphs.

"OK, I think there's a real challenge and part of it has to do with the fact that quantifiable information doesn't always get you what you're looking for. People get you what you're looking for,” Jackson interjected. “So I'd be happy to do a focus group for you with Black and brown young people who will tell you why they do or don't want to join the Oakland Police Department and that will be far better than all these round, colorful things.”

“I find that beyond offensive and misrepresentative of what I'm trying to talk about,” Gleason said.

She immediately seemed to recognized she’d said the wrong thing. She backtracked, showing slides that displayed the department’s efforts at recruiting through mobile ads and posters on public transit. “We are trying to try different ways of advertising to people and then seeing if they work.”

Jackson interjected, “But your posters aren't reaching out and touching people, that's my point. If you want to recruit people, people recruit people, not posters.”

Harris and Jackson began peppering her with questions, growing more frustrated when Gleason continued to equivocate and deflect.

“This representation, this what you're doing right now is disgraceful. It’s shameful and you should be ashamed of yourself," Harris said.

Finally, Kirkpatrick stepped up to the podium and chastised Jackson and Harris.

"I am not going to have you call her out as disgraceful. I am not, as the chief of police, as long as I'm the chief, you may not call her out,” Kirkpatrick said, to which Jackson replied: “It’s not she, it's the work that was presented."

Kirkpatrick said Gleason had to cancel a planned vacation to see her grandchildren in order to present that night, and that Gleason was owed an apology for their treatment of her.

“She will not get one from me,” Harris said. “And neither will you.”

Eventually, Commissioner Smith intervened. “I personally want to say I apologize that you have to cancel your tickets, that you had to go through all of that.”

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He added, “I think everybody at this table is tired right now.”

Testifying Monday, Smith said he understood his colleagues’ frustration with Gleason’s failure to address a very real problem within the department.

“They seemed to be talking past each other,” he said. “Gleason didn’t seem to understand why they were concerned about why there were no Black women in the academy. There wasn’t that kind of collaboration. Instead, they were fighting. It’s hard to solve a problem when you’re fighting.”

He said he thought Kirkpatrick should have sought to defuse tensions rather than escalate them. “A transformational leader would step into the gap. Oakland has challenging issues we need to get together to resolve. I didn’t see that happening,” Smith said.

Harris testified she had concerns about Kirkpatrick’s performance, as well as her attitude toward a negotiated settlement in the 2003 civil rights lawsuit Delphine Allen et al. v. City of Oakland, which stemmed from the “Riders” scandal in which four officers were charged with kidnapping, beating, robbing, and planting evidence on residents of an impoverished neighborhood in West Oakland.

The agreement required the police department to meet certain reform benchmarks under the oversight of a federal monitor. Harris attended a hearing August 2019 where the chief and the city of Oakland updated the federal judge overseeing the case on the department’s progress.

“I sat in the court and listened to fluff. It was disheartening because the police commission has communication with the police and city officials all the time and they came to the courtroom and fluffed it,” Harris told the jury. “They made it like 'oh everything is great.’ And what put the cherry on top was when the former chief was asked about the most important thing she was focused on, she said,"the narrative.” And I just dropped my head. Not the people, not the relationships, not fighting crime, not stopping the 1,211 murders we had in one year, none of that. It was the ‘narrative.' And then I knew it was all about appearance for her, at least from my perspective.”

For Smith, Kirkpatrick’s treatment of the fatal police shooting of Joshua Pawlik in 2018 shook his confidence.

Pawlik, who was homeless, was found sleeping in an alley between two house with a gun at his side. Multiple officers responded and attempted to wake him by shouting at him from behind an armored vehicle. Pawlik did wake and was shot multiple times by five officers who said they thought they saw him reach for his gun.

Smith said he reviewed the video and found it unsettling that Kirkpatrick would downgrade the officers’ discipline.

The jury also heard from Harris about the infamous “tow incident,” where Kirkpatrick reported to city officials that Harris had come to police headquarters and demanded that her towing fees be dismissed. Harris said she did go to the station, but only to try to determine whether the department had followed policy, since her car was towed from her driveway.

Kirkpatrick accused Harris of using her police commissioner position get a favor out of the department.

Harris flatly denied that she asked for such a thing, growing a bit heated on the stand under questioning from Kirkpatrick’s attorney James Slaughter.

"I said I would never ask her for a favor,” Harris said. “I did not know her and I would never ask her for a favor.”

Commissioner Dorado said the incident played a small role in his vote. He thought Kirkpatrick was trying to smear his friend Harris, since the tow incident prompted the city of Oakland to launch an investigation of her that later became public. But the Gleason presentation, he said, "that was the capper."

Harris said she was unaware that Kirkpatrick had complained about her until Kirkpatrick filed her lawsuit, testimony that Slaughter easily impeached through Harris’ emails to Jackson and other commissioners, as well as a May 7, 2019, email from the outside firm hired to investigate Harris.

“Clearly this is retaliation. Let’s discuss,” Harris wrote in an email the next day to Jackson.

Smith said Kirkpatrick’s complaints about Harris had absolutely no bearing on his decision to vote to terminate the chief, though he did recall hearing about the tow incident from Harris.

“She vehemently denied ever asking for a favor. I remember her saying, “I did not ask that [expletive] woman for a favor.’ I think it was a misunderstanding," Smith said. "Ginale genuinely thought her car shouldn’t have been towed. That it was wrong.”

For Smith, it was yet another miscommunication. “I think they were talking past each other,” he said.

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