Friday, January 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ex-Oakland police chief faces grilling in federal retaliation trial

Former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick finished her testimony Wednesday, facing pointed questions about her firing. Kirkpatrick contends it was retaliatory.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Anne Kirkpatrick defended her three-year tenure as police chief for the city of Oakland under tough questioning Wednesday in her federal jury trial on whistleblower retaliation claims.

Violent crime and shootings went down while she was chief, Kirkpatrick testified on cross-examination. But Jonathan Bass, an attorney representing the city of Oakland, drew the jury’s attention to other problems in the department, homing in on tensions between Kirkpatrick and federal monitor Robert Warshaw.

The Oakland police department has been under Warshaw’s oversight following the “Riders” scandal of 2000, where a squad of police officers were accused of kidnapping, beating, robbing and planting evidence on residents of an impoverished neighborhood in West Oakland.

Warshaw was hired to ensure that the department was making progress on court-mandated reforms under the terms of a negotiated settlement in the Riders case.

Kirkpatrick and Warshaw seemed to get along at first, but their relationship curdled following the fatal police shooting of Joshua Pawlik, a homeless man found sleeping with a gun at his side in a West Oakland alley in 2018.

The five cops who fired 22 rounds at Pawlik said he was alert and awake, and that he pointed a gun at them, a version of the event that conflicts with video footage. 

Just after the shooting, Kirkpatrick called Warshaw to tell him that the officers' actions appeared justified because Pawlik had pointed a gun at them. “Looks good,” was the language she used.

Warshaw later released a critical report saying Kirkpatrick handled the shooting with “an appalling measure of incompetence, deception and indifference.”

On the stand Wednesday, Kirkpatrick said Warshaw had misunderstood her. She meant that the shooting did not appear to have violated a citywide policy on police shootings. "Nothing was shared with me in that moment that we had something that stood out,” Kirkpatrick said. “I assume he would have known what I meant. Apparently, he did not.”

“You felt this conflict with Mr. Warshaw posed a potential threat to your job?” Bass asked.

“Mr. Warshaw certainly had the authority to remove me,” Kirkpatrick replied. “He was not pleased with my decision at all. He was very critical. I actually called and asked him if he intended to remove me. He said no.”

She also said the department created a new policy after the Pawlik shooting. "As a result of Pawlik, we were the first in the country to create a policy specifically about unconscious people who are armed,” she said.

Kirkpatrick also clashed with the Oakland Black Officers Association, an organization founded in 1970 by Black police officers "who felt they were not treated the same as everyone else in the organization,” according to testimony by its president, Lt. Aaron Smith.

Smith met with Kirkpatrick in October 2018 to discuss an issue he had with his commander, who led the department’s unit on recruiting. He said the commander inappropriately screened out qualified applicants who had attended technical schools.

Smith said applicants from Oakland, women and people of color “were rejected for minor reasons.” He added, “I was concerned it would look as if we were being discriminatory in our hiring practices.”

He said he’d hoped Kirkpatrick would remove the commander from that unit and that biased and unfair treatment of applicants and Black officers would cease. But Bassett remained in the position until January 2019.

Unsatisfied about the pace of change, Smith and the executive board published an open letter in the Oakland Post. “A culture remains in place at Oakland Police Department (OPD) and in senior leadership that could be perceived as unfair, racist, inequitable and not in line with the Oakland Police Department’s core values,” they wrote.

ADVERTISEMENT

Kirkpatrick was fired on Feb. 17, 2020. At her farewell party, she told hundreds of officers, "I've been accused of being unfair and mistreating people of color.” Smith said felt like her statement was addressed to him.

In a phone conversation later that day, Kirkpatrick told Smith he had been used in publishing that letter, and that she felt like she had been fired because of it.

Kirkpatrick’s attorney James Slaughter noted on his cross-examination of Smith that she had been exonerated by an outside firm of any wrongdoing related to the recruiting unit.

Smith’s testimony contradicts Kirkpatrick’s main claim that she was fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on abuse of power and corruption within the police commission, a seven-member civilian body established by voters in 2016 to oversee some department policies and review officer misconduct.

That misconduct allegedly included intimidating police staff to get resources directed to commissioners’ own neighborhoods and a commissioner flashing her badge to avoid paying a towing fee.

But Bass, the attorney for Oakland, disputed that the incidents rose to the level of corruption. He also heavily scrutinized on cross-examination another episode in which Commissioner Ginale Harris allegedly used her badge to influence the San Francisco Police Department during a confrontation with an administrator at her son’s school.

According to emails that were requested and obtained by Oakland-based reporter Jaime Omar Yassin, an anonymous tipster reported the altercation to the OPD's Internal Affairs unit. An officer forwarded the report directly to a captain in the unit, who sent it to Kirkpatrick “for your situational awareness.”

Within a couple of hours, Kirkpatrick had sent an email about the incident to City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, City Attorney Barbara Parker and City Auditor Courtney Ruby.

Bass wanted to know why Kirkpatrick was alerted at all, since Harris was not an OPD employee.

“The only reason you received that information was because you were the police chief of Oakland. Did the Internal Affairs unit act improperly?” he asked.

Kirkpatrick replied, “They properly sent it to me, but the person [tipster] didn’t call because I'm the chief of police.”

Bass pressed, “You characterize your forwarding the report you received as an act of whistle-blowing?”

Kirkpatrick responded affirmatively, adding, “It was the showing of the badge to influence the San Francisco police and the people in the school. That's how the complaining party thought the situation was and reported it as such.”

In a clip of her deposition played to the jury, Kirkpatrick added she believed Harris’ scene at her son’s school qualified as a high-profile event that could be reported in the press, and that she had been directed to report such events to city officials.

Harris was later exonerated by the Public Ethics Commission, but Kirkpatrick’s relationship with the police commission continued to deteriorate. By the fall of 2019, the commission was looking to fire her. In October 2019, tensions culminated in a public dust-up at a commission meeting, where Harris and commission chair Regina Jackson allegedly berated Kirkpatrick’s friend and subordinate, Virginia Gleason, over a presentation they found deficient.

Knowing she was on the ropes, Kirkpatrick sent a formal complaint about the commission to city officials, begging them for protection.

Former City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, one of the recipients of Kirkpatrick’s complaints and reports, testified Wednesday that she took the allegations in them seriously. She also said she disagreed with Mayor Libby Schaaf’s decision to join the commission in firing Kirkpatrick without cause.

The jury is expected to hear from Schaaf on Friday.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...