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Judge narrows federal monitoring of Oakland Police Department despite concerns

The federal judge expressed concerns about what he called "a cultural inability of Oakland Police Department to police itself."

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge challenged Oakland to reform the culture within its scandal-ridden police department, even as he narrowed the scope of a longtime federal monitor's duties.

This past January, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said Oakland Police Department must demonstrate full compliance with all tasks that the federal monitor — in place for more than 20 years after a string of scandals including police brutality and sexual assault — assigned to show internal reform. The department entered a sustainability period in June 2022 and hoped to exit the monitor within one year, which Orrick now says was premature.

Assistant Chief Darren Allison is serving as acting chief after Chief LeRonne Armstrong was fired, following a scathing report detailing how internal investigators mishandled a sergeant who failed to report crashing his police vehicle and who fired his gun inside a city building. 

Orrick has said the department will remain under the federal monitor until it is in full compliance, and must adopt all recommendations from the new report. 

In court in San Francisco on Tuesday, Orrick said he has seen the police department make impressive accomplishments under the federal monitor. He said he is less concerned about the police force than he is about its leadership.

“I’ve also seen what seems to be a cultural inability of OPD to police itself, to hold itself and its officers accountable without fear of favor,” he said. “It’s this lack of integrity, this culture that plays favorites, that undercuts constitutional policing.”

Allison said he thinks the report’s recommendations shine a light on how to address internal cultural issues. He said the department must hire people with the community's values and continue command reviews to catch internal issues. 

Plaintiffs’ attorney James Chanin praised his experiences on recent ride-alongs with different police officers. But he said he is not confident the department will be transparent about any future scandals. 

“I want to be convinced that this discipline, which by its very nature involves command staff, is not a product of some sort of bias on the part of the supervisors meting out the discipline,” Chanin said. 

He said he wants to distance himself from people including Armstrong, who recently claimed that the monitor pressured Mayor Sheng Thao to fire the former police chief.

“There is no proof whatsoever that this happened,” Chanin said, adding that without evidence the claim “reeks of sexism.”

Attorney John Burris said he's not sure if any police department that has achieved technical compliance with tasks under a federal monitor has also created a long-term internal cultural change.

“Now we don’t know, and I am troubled by that, and hopeful,” he said. “We do have to recognize that the question of culture is an ongoing process.”

Brigid Martin, Oakland’s supervising deputy city attorney, said police officers need more positive recognition of successes and less focus on failures.

“The more narrow we can have that assessment focus be, the more resources we will have to use,” Martin said. “It makes sense to take some of the training wheels off while they’re still on and see how we do. We’re trying to bring the city’s culture from the outside inside, as guideposts.” 

Mayor Thao said she believes the city is on the right track after making difficult decisions and meeting weekly with command staff. 

“We’ll never stop finding areas for improvement, we know that,” she said. “It means policing in Oakland will always be a work in progress. This oversight has changed the culture of Oakland, of how citizenries can actually hold the police department accountable, of how the police department holds itself accountable.”

Orrick reminded the parties that the one-year probationary period for exiting the federal monitor was begun last year while the police department and city were not fully compliant on all assigned tasks, because people wanted to move on.

“Turns out we were premature," the judge said.

“The court supervision can’t do very much about informing people that they need to own up to the mistakes that they make. But if you can’t address them and then move forward, if you try to sweep them under the rug, whether the court is monitoring or not won’t make any difference.”

Orrick said he will issue an order laying all upcoming proceedings. He extended the city’s period for showing compliance with the monitor tasks and set another case management conference for Sept. 26.

Starting June 1, the monitor’s scope will be reduced to address only some tasks, and the city must find reasonable ways to obtain compliance. 

Although Thao fired the chief, the Oakland Police Commission will choose his replacement. The commission faced criticism this year for not taking action to use its subpoena power to get records on internal investigations which the police department could be required to provide, and for not answering questions from the public about what will be done to better hold the department accountable.

The commission next meets Thursday. 

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