Fired Oakland Police Chief Files Whistleblower Lawsuit Against City

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf gestures during a 2018 news conference in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Fired Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick followed through on a promise to sue the city of Oakland for retaliation, filing a federal lawsuit Wednesday that claims she was booted from the job for reporting corruption and misconduct in the police commission. 

Her lawsuit claims members of the police commission, a civilian body formed in 2016 to oversee the police department, routinely abused their power and demanded special treatment. 

Kirkpatrick’s complaint accuses commissioners of interfering with the department’s day-to-day operations, bullying police department staff and demanding access to confidential personnel records in connection with an investigation into racial bias in the department.

Kirkpatrick also says they tried to steer police resources toward their own neighborhoods and that one commissioner who believed she had been illegally towed tried to use her position to challenge a tow truck fee.

“Commissioners regularly attempt to exceed their authority. Anybody who speaks out about these abuses is bullied, threatened, and retaliated against,” Kirkpatrick’s lawsuit says. “For nearly three years, Chief Kirkpatrick raised a series of alarms about this commissioner misconduct, which she believed violated the law. Those alarms went largely unheeded. Finally, caving to pressure from those same lawless commissioners, the city fired its most progressive chief in decades in retaliation for blowing the whistle.”

Established by voters in 2016, the Oakland Police Commission wields limited power to change department policies and review officer misconduct. And it can unilaterally fire police chiefs for cause, or without cause if the mayor approves.

Kirkpatrick was fired by the commission and Mayor Libby Schaaf in February 2020. Schaaf delivered the news to Kirkpatrick by phone on Feb. 20, but weeks earlier, Kirkpatrick had received a visit from the mayor who informed her of the commission’s intention to fire her. 

“The city never offered the chief an administrative hearing as required under the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights, nor did it afford her an opportunity to appeal the city’s decision before a neutral decision maker,” Kirkpatrick’s lawsuit says. 

Kirkpatrick believes she was fired in retaliation for submitting multiple reports on the police commission to the mayor, city administrator and the city’s attorney’s office, reports she says were ignored.

“She did what she thought was her right and her obligation. She reported what she thought was wrong,” said her attorney R. James Slaughter, partner with Keker Van Nest & Peters. “We’re going to prove she was fired because of retaliation.”

He said Kirkpatrick “cares deeply about progressive, effective policing and the city of Oakland,” but that the commission has been “a fundamental impediment to effective oversight.”

“If a member of the Oakland Police Department treated a citizen of Oakland the way these commissioners regularly treated the chief and the command staff, they would be reprimanded or fired,” Slaughter said. “It was atrocious.”

The lawsuit raises one incident on Oct. 10, 2019, where Kirkpatrick’s senior civilian aide Virginia Gleason gave a presentation on the department’s efforts to hire a more diverse group of officers. Gleason was unprepared to give her report on that date, the lawsuit says, but she cancelled a planned family vacation to give it anyway. 

The lawsuit says that the commission launched into “heated criticism” almost immediately, berating Gleason for her lack of preparation. 

“The Commissioners’ breathtakingly abusive and harassing conduct, unbecoming of public officials—and recorded on video—was a bridge too far,” Kirkpatrick says in her complaint.

Kirkpatrick demanded an apology from the commission.

Oakland Police Commission Chair Regina Jackson remembers the incident differently. She says the report Gleason was supposed to give was over six months late. 

“I know I myself had to redirect her in the midst of her presentation because she was giving an overview we had not asked for,” Jackson said. She said she didn’t recall any abusive language being used. 

Jackson said the commission often asked pointed questions of Kirkpatrick and department employees, but that didn’t rise to the level of harassment her lawsuit claims.

“She had significant trouble reporting to a volunteer body. I think we asked a lot of direct questions and I don’t consider those bullying,” Jackson said. “If you’re used to people talking to you as cotton candy, a direct question may seem abrasive. But direct is direct.” 

Jackson said the commission didn’t know that Kirkpatrick had filed a formal complaint until after they voted to fire her. 

“We didn’t know about the complaint in order to terminate her for whistleblowing. So it’s kind of hard to terminate her for blowing a whistle we didn’t know was blown,” Jackson said in an interview Wednesday. “It was a unanimous decision to terminate her, made in partnership with the mayor who also thought it appropriate for her to be terminated. It sounds more like sour grapes than anything.” 

Jackson said the commission “just knew [Kirkpatrick} was not going to be the transformational chief she claimed she was.” 

Kirkpatrick came under fire for the way she handled the fatal police shooting of Joshua Pawlik in 2018, a homeless man found sleeping with a gun at his side in a West Oakland alley on March 11, 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. 

Robert Warshaw, a monitor appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms in the department stemming from a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit about police misconduct and abuse, criticized Kirkpatrick’s “premature” support of the officers’ account, most recently in a report released Monday.

Warshaw also supported her firing, Kirkpatrick’s lawsuit says. In turn, the former chief has also called for his removal, saying he’s more concerned with his hefty paycheck than helping the police department comply with court-mandated reforms. A federal judge approved another payment of some $98,000 to Warshaw & Associates Inc. on Wednesday.

She reiterated that criticism on Wednesday through her attorney, who called Warshaw an “outsider who is bilking the city.”

“Warshaw is concerned about Warshaw and not this department,” Slaughter said.

Kirkpatrick is seeking an undisclosed amount in damages for lost pay, benefits, and lost future earnings from Feb. 20, 2020 through Feb. 26, 2022, the date her contract was set to end.

Supervising Deputy City Attorney Zoe Savitsky said the Oakland City Attorney’s Office “has no comment at this time.”

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