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Former Oakland police chief takes stand in whistleblower retaliation trial

Anne Kirkpatrick claims she was fired for reporting corruption within the police commission. The city of Oakland says Mayor Libby Schaaf was allowed to fire her for any reason, or none at all.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As a young patrol officer in her hometown of Memphis, former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said she was exposed early on to the corrupt side of policing. "It was common practice in Memphis to flash your badge and you could get your free dry cleaning and go out to dinner,” she said. “There was also a lot of ticket fixing.”

She said she decided that she wasn’t going to put up with it. “I made a decision about which path I was going to take. I was going to try to be one of the good ones,” Kirkpatrick testified Tuesday in her whistleblower retaliation trial.

But on cross-examination, attorney Jonathan Bass suggested that this "sense of righteousness" may have colored her perception and caused her to assume corruption where there was none.

Bass, a partner with Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, represents the city of Oakland in Kirkpatrick’s lawsuit claiming she was fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on abuse of power and misconduct within the police commission, a seven-member civilian body established by voters in 2016 to oversee some department policies and review officer misconduct.

“To report misconduct is not an act of betrayal. It is an act of integrity. I acted on that integrity and I came forward,” Kirkpatrick told the jury. “I had a right to not have retaliation. I had a right to be protected. And instead I was actually terminated.”

The city’s main argument is that Kirkpatrick was an at-will employee and served at the pleasure of Mayor Libby Schaaf, who could fire her without cause or explanation. Kirkpatrick contends her ouster was a direct result of several reports she made in 2018 regarding some members of the police commission.

During her direct testimony, Kirkpatrick said Schaaf was consistently pleased with her performance as chief, even touting her as “fabulous” and “fantastic” to other mayors at a conference in 2020, which Kirkpatrick also attended.

“Three weeks later she's firing me,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick was recruited to the job in 2016. She had previously been chief of police for Spokane, Washington. When she met with Schaaf, she said the two talked about the Oakland Police Department’s challenges, including recent allegations that multiple Oakland police officers had sexually exploited an underage girl.

The department was also under federal monitoring — one of the longest of any department in the country — 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.

The resulting lawsuit led to a negotiated settlement under which the department had to commit to meeting reform benchmarks. The department is on the verge of exiting federal monitoring with a one-year probationary period ordered by the federal judge overseeing the case.

"We talked about the fact that I was more mature. I was seasoned. That Oakland was the place for a seasoned chief and not a first-time chief,” Kirkpatrick said of her meeting with the mayor.

She said she supported the creation of the civilian police commission, and believes outside oversight is critical to holding insular police departments accountable. “All of those things were actual attractions to me because I also know that if agencies are going to be truly reformed, they need to have effective civilian oversight.”

But by 2018, Kirkpatrick’s relationship with the commission had soured.

The rift allegedly began in March of that year, when commissioners Ginale Harris and Jose Dorado had a meeting with two neighborhood service coordinators who worked for the police department as liaisons between the officers and the community.


The women, Jacqueline Long and Felicia Verdin, were so upset by the meeting that they left in tears, Kirkpatrick said, and reported it to their union. They also reported it to Kirkpatrick.

“She [Harris] wanted to know the hiring process and demanded various documents. She says she mentioned how she had a history of having people fired and how NSCs should be Oakland residents,” said their report, which was displayed to the jury. Harris also allegedly talked about illegal dumping in her neighborhood. Kirkpatrick said the coordinators were afraid of losing their jobs, since Harris had implied that she could get them fired. "These employees thought their paychecks — their livelihood — could be taken from them if they didn't comply.”

Kirkpatrick said she was even more disturbed by Dorado’s remarks.

Kirkpatrick said Dorado complained to the women about “his prior NSCs,” and believed that the Ghost Ship fire, a devastating warehouse blaze that killed 36 partygoers in 2016, could have been prevented if the NSC had done something about it.

"It was so inappropriate I don't even know what to say. He put a burden like that on two women who do block-watch parties,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick reported these comments to the Oakland city attorney and the city administrator’s office. “I was not going to be quiet about it," she said.

Kirkpatrick’s email to the city officials asked them to "confirm the commissioners’ scope of authority as it pertained to OPD staff."

Another episode, well documented by the local news, involved Harris flashing her badge at an OPD records clerk and complaining about unjust towing fees.

“She told supervisor she was OK with paying the administrative fee but said if she had to pay the tow fees there was going be a problem,” the clerk later wrote in a report on the incident. The clerk also reported Harris threatening to take the matter to the chief.

Kirkpatrick met with Harris in her office. “I said, 'I understand you're here asking for a favor,'” Kirkpatrick testified. “I remember saying very clearly that I don't do favors and that there was a process.”

She said Harris was offended by the accusation that she was asking for a favor, but Kirkpatrick told her she had to go through the same process as anyone else.

“This is on its face abusing your authority as a public official, saying there's going to be a problem if I don't get what I want,” Kirkpatrick told the jury. She wrote up the incident in an email sent to city officials, including the mayor. "I am concerned that commissioner Harris will be retaliatory toward me or to my staff,” Kirkpatrick wrote.

Bass spent a good deal of time digging into the tow incident, suggesting that Kirkpatrick overacted and falsely accused Harris.
“Do you think that sense of ethical behavior and righteousness may have affected your reaction when Ginale Harris came to complain about her tow ticket and you accused her of seeking a favor from you?”

Kirkpatrick replied, ”She had postured that from the staff who reported it to me. It wasn't just me.”

The tension between Kirkpatrick and the commission came to a head in October 2019 when, at a commission meeting that stretched late into the night, Harris and commission chair Regina Jackson allegedly attacked deputy director Virginia Gleason during a presentation about diversity in recruitment for the department.

According to Kirkpatrick, they immediately began peppering Gleason with questions. “It was an assault," Kirkpatrick said, adding that Harris told Gleason that her presentation was a “disgrace” and that she “should be ashamed of herself.” Kirkpatrick said she intervened and scolded the commissioners for their “targeted behavior.”

Apart from the ugliness of the incident itself, Kirkpatrick said she was disturbed by the timing. Gleason was not even supposed to be giving the presentation that night, but the commissioners had insisted she do it.

“Everyone knew Virginia was a personal friend that I brought down from Seattle with me. She left her family to come and be a part of this reform. I believe they were slapping at her as a retaliation toward me for having reported what I did,” she said.

Kirkpatrick also said Gleason was warned by commission employee Chrissie Love and Deputy Chief LeRonne Armstrong that she was walking into a trap. “They're setting you up and what they want is to shame you,” they reportedly said.

Kirkpatrick said the commissioners’ antagonism stemmed from the city’s investigation of Harris by an outside firm. "I knew I was going to be retaliated against. I just knew it,” she said.

Schaaf delivered the news to Kirkpatrick at her home, where Kirkpatrick told her she was using a legal mechanism for an illegal purpose. She said she felt blindsided. “What changed?” she asked Schaaf.

The mayor had no response.

Kirkpatrick said she was “humiliated” by the firing and was unable to get another policing job because of the stigma created by the news coverage.

She said it was particularly hard to break the news to her elderly parents. On a fishing trip with her father, she broke down. “Dad, I am so embarrassed. I have failed,” she told him.

Addressing the jury, she said, “My dad said something that means the world to me. He said, ‘Anne, just because you have failed does not mean you are not a failure.’"

And she was not a failure to Armstrong, who became Oakland’s chief of police in 2021. The day she left, he sent her a text, which was displayed in court.

“I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you and thank you for giving me a chance and allowing me to be a part of your team,” he wrote. “I've learned so much from you and it’s been an honor to serve you and watch you lead. I will always hold you in the highest regard as the best chief of police I've worked for and with. May god bless you and your family.”

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