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Federal retaliation trial for fired Oakland police chief kicks off

"This is a case about the cost of sounding the alarm on corruption," former OPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick's attorney told a nine-member jury during opening arguments Monday. But the city of Oakland contends Kirkpatrick failed to deliver on reforms.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An undercurrent of mistrust and discord between former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and the civilian oversight board that voted to fire her two years ago was laid bare in a federal courtroom Monday at the opening of her whistleblower retaliation trial.

The trial is set to unfold over the next two weeks, at the end of which a federal jury will decide whether Kirkpatrick lost her job because she reported corruption within the Oakland Police Commission, a seven-member board established by voters in 2016 to oversee some department policies and review officer misconduct.

“The fact is Chief Kirkpatrick blew the whistle on the police commission and they wanted her gone, plain and simple,” her attorney James Slaughter, a partner with Keker Van Nest & Peters, said in his opening statement.

Kirkpatrick, who was recruited in late 2016 by Mayor Libby Schaaf, entered a police department rocked by decades of mismanagement and scandal, and had underwent eight leadership changes within eight years before Kirkpatrick took the job. That year saw yet another outrage with allegations that multiple Oakland police officers sexually exploited an underage girl.
“It’s fair to say the Oakland Police Department was spiraling out of control,” Slaughter said.

With 30 years of experience under her belt, including stints as chief of police in Spokane, Federal Way, and Ellensburg, Washington, Slaughter said Kirkpatrick was committed to reform and accountability, making Oakland safer and raising officer morale.

A large part of her job also included meeting the benchmarks required of a negotiated settlement in the 2003 civil rights lawsuit Delphine Allen et al. v. City of Oakland.

The case arose from the “Riders” scandal, where four police officers were accused of kidnapping, beating, robbing, and planting evidence on residents of an impoverished neighborhood in West Oakland while the department turned a blind eye.

The settlement was supposed to last five years with no more than one additional two-year extension, but a federal judge extended it several times as the department failed to meet reform measures like reducing officer-involved shootings and racially motivated traffic stops. The monitoring continues to this day.

Representing the city of Oakland, Katharine Van Dusen, a partner with the firm Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass said the department regressed under Kirkpatrick’s leadership.

“In 2017, the Oakland Police Department was in compliance with nearly all tasks,” she said. “The department fell out of compliance on four tasks OPD had previously been in compliance with.” She said the police commission believed Kirkpatrick was more concerned about her image than in reforming the department, and that they quickly lost confidence in her. “All seven of them agreed that Ms. Kirkpatrick wasn't the right police chief for Oakland,” Van Dusen said.

But Slaughter said the commission was looking for a way to get rid of Kirkpatrick because she refused to condone instances of misconduct. In 2018, he said commissioners Ginale Harris and Jose Dorado met with two neighborhood service coordinators— civilian employees of the department— and “sought to steer Oakland police department resources to their own neighborhoods.” He said Harris told them that she “had a history of having people fired,” and that they felt intimidated.

They reported the incident to Kirkpatrick, who in turn reported it to the city of Oakland. "Chief Kirkpatrick will testify she reasonably believed they were unlawfully trying to use the power of their position to for their own benefit.” Slaughter said.

Another incident in 2018 also raised alarm bells for the chief, where Harris allegedly flashed her commissioner badge at a records clerk to try to get her tow fees dismissed.

"She told the record clerk that if she had to pay the tow fees there was going to be a problem,” Slaughter said, adding that Harris later had a personal spat with Kirkpatrick over the fees, and accused Kirkpatrick of treating her disrespectfully.

Kirkpatrick’s reports eventually led to an outside investigation of Harris. Slaughter said that when the other commissioners found out about the investigation, they “rallied around their colleague and decided to fire Kirkpatrick for cause.”

He said the commission knew it didn’t have enough to fire Kirkpatrick for cause. They could, however, fire her without cause. And for that, they needed the mayor’s blessing.

Slaughter said the mayor liked the job Kirkpatrick was doing but decided to “cut a deal” by joining with the commission in firing Kirkpatrick in February 2020 to avoid exposing the city to liability.

The mayor is expected to be called as a witness in the case, along with Harris and Dorado, former commissioner Edwin Prather, and commissioner Regina Jackson. Prather and Jackson were both appointed by Schaaf.

Van Dusen said Schaaf trusted their judgment but ultimately made her own decision.

"No one has the right to be chief of police in Oakland. And once hired, you don't have the right to stay. The chief of police serves at the mayor's pleasure. The mayor was not required to give a list of reasons or an explanation for her decision,” Van Dusen said.

Though the jury isn’t tasked with adjudicating Kirkpatrick’ effectiveness as chief, the trial will likely home in on the commission’s reasons for wanting her out — like the department’s progress on court-mandated reforms and how Kirkpatrick handled the death of an unarmed homeless man in 2018.

“I am confident you will find things you like about Ms. Kirkpatrick,” Van Dusen said. “She's not a villain. She was simply not the right person to be the chief of police for Oakland.”

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