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Former Oakland police chief wins her day in court on retaliation claims

Former chief Anne Kilpatrick says the city of Oakland fired her for exposing corruption within the civilian-run police commission.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge will allow the retaliation claims of former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kilpatrick against the city to go to trial.

“I am pretty confident we will be going to trial,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn Scott Corley said from the bench Thursday. 

The city of Oakland sought summary judgment, which is when a judge rules on a matter of law because there is no dispute about the underlying facts in the case, only whether those facts constitute a given violation. But Corley made it clear during the hearing, which was conducted remotely via Zoom, that there were some material disputes between both parties.

“Why isn’t there a disputed issue of fact in interpreting whether this rule was violated?” Corley asked Oakland's attorney Katharine Van Dusen of Coblentz Patch during the hearing. 

The fact the judge is asking about disputed issues of fact indicates she believes the outstanding issues that came up during the hearing are matters to be settled in front of a jury, not through summary judgment.

The city of Oakland argued Kilpatrick could not bring the matter to trial because her firing stemmed from something other than protected activity. But Kilpatrick claims she was fired from her position as police chief in 2020 because she exposed how members of the independent police commission abused their power and demanded special treatment. 

In one of the instances brought up during Thursday’s hearing, a police commissioner asked Kilpatrick if she could help her get out of some fines related to having her car towed. Another incident at a school occurred when a police commissioner called the police to have them attend to a problem, then flashed her badge and asked police to investigate something specific. 

Van Dusen attempted to argue that neither of these incidents actually constituted infractions of the commissioners' duties, therefore Kilpatrick was not engaged in whistleblowing when she reported the incidents to higher-ups but was instead reporting neutral incidents within the city and should not be considered a whistleblower. 

It was clear Corley was not persuaded by the legal gambit, particularly at the summary judgment phase, and said the issue of whether the activity was actual whistleblowing should best be left for a jury to decide. 

“Let’s use common sense here,” Corley said toward the top of the hearing. “The chief says in her email that she was meeting with the commissioner because she was asking a favor regarding tow fees. She draws the inference contemporaneously.”

The inference Corley is referring to is the status of the police commissioner. Van Dusen attempted to argue that since the police commissioner never explicitly referred to her role on the oversight board that could impact the chief’s job, it wasn’t a crime. 

But Corley said the chief clearly inferred from the request that a quid pro quo situation was afoot. 

The judge said she did not have a trial date in mind, but it was clear from the hearing that movement toward a trial would be expeditious and could happen within the calendar year in the absence of a settlement. 

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. 


Kilpatrick filed suit soon after, claiming the police commission wanted to fire her because she intended to expose their corruption. 

“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, said in an interview when the suit was filed. “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, when 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 canceled 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.

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 in an interview after Kilpatrick filed suit. 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. “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 in a 2020 report.

Kirkpatrick seeks 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.

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