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Judge slams Oakland Police Department, keeps federal monitor in place

Oakland officials faced local pushback Tuesday for the decision to put the police chief on leave while attempting to reach compliance under a federal monitor.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday kept a federal monitor for the Oakland Police Department in place — originally put there more than 20 years ago after a string of scandals including police brutality and sexual assault — following a scathing report of multiple failures of the department’s internal investigations of a sergeant. 

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said the police department must demonstrate being in full compliance with all tasks the monitor assigned to show internal reform. 

Assistant Chief Darren Allison is serving as acting chief while Chief LeRonne Armstrong remains on leave following a report that internal investigators mishandled a sergeant who failed to report crashing his police vehicle and who fired his gun inside a city building. The city is also in the middle of leadership change, as Mayor Sheng Thao just took office and an interim city administrator is being sought.

At a demonstration Tuesday at the Alameda County courthouse, the NAACP Oakland branch attacked Thao and city administrators’ decision to put Armstrong on leave, saying “Chief LeRonne Armstrong did nothing wrong.” The organization wants Thao to reinstate Armstrong and investigate the federal monitor. 

LeRonne Armstrong and Cynthia Adams at the county courthouse in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Local leaders, including the African American and Chinatown Chambers of Commerce chiefs Cathy Adams and Carl Chan, said they support Armstrong because he is from Oakland and well known, and they do not want the city to hire another chief.

"I recognize that there’s been problems over the years," Armstrong told the crowd. "I’m trying to fix the problems, I need your help.”

He added, “If you want to pick a fight with somebody, Oakland is the wrong place to do it!” – to which the crowd responded by chanting “Fight! Fight!”

Several hours later, Orrick reviewed the city and plaintiffs' reports under the federal monitor case, filed Jan. 23.

The city claims staff learned about incidents involving Sgt. Michael Chung on Jan. 18 through independent firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen. The firm detailed a March 2021 incident where Chung crashed his vehicle and did not report the incident. In April 2022, Chung fired his gun inside an elevator at the Police Administration Building and did not report it for more than a week. 

The city says they will have to strengthen the police department’s internal processes and independent oversight. But it also pointed to improvements like reducing stop rates of Black people to below 50%, although noting that the stop rate of Latinos has been trending upward. 

The department is handling more internal investigations and focusing heavily on recruitment due to high turnover. The city projects an average attrition rate of four officers per month as the department ended 2022 with 678 of 726 sworn positions filled. 

The plaintiffs say the decision to remove Armstrong was a direct result of the independent law firm’s report, for his failing to hold subordinate officers accountable, effectively review the incidents and allowing Chung to “escape responsibility for serious misconduct.” They listed failures showing a department “in disarray”: that Chung failed to report two serious incidents, including a vehicle collision involving another officer he had an undisclosed romantic relationship with, and throwing the bullet he fired in a city building off the Bay Bridge. 

These offenses show a department that is out of compliance with the federal monitor’s standards, the plaintiffs say. They said an internal process ending with Armstrong signing an altered punishment without examining evidence or even reading it “is fundamentally incompatible with a robust Internal Affairs or discipline process.”

Oakland Police Department staff gave responses to questions about whether discipline processes are fair. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

“An Internal Affairs process where supervisors can demand changes to an ROI without an accompanying paper trail is ripe for abuse,” the plaintiffs say. Supervisors and command staff allegedly receive lighter discipline than rank-and-file, and employees reported that “who you know, and to which cliques you belong, influence whether an investigation will be sustained and what level of discipline will be administered.” 

The plaintiffs say the federal monitor should be extended “until the department designs policies, practices and procedures to prevent this disaster from happening again” — within six months. 

“If the OPD cannot perform competent Internal Affairs investigations or discipline its own officers fairly, there will always be questions as to whether they can police themselves, or provide equal justice in the community they serve,” the plaintiffs say. 

At a hearing Tuesday, Orrick told lawyers, “I am profoundly disappointed by the evidence that resulted in the federal compliance director’s conclusion that task 5 is out of compliance.” 

He said the department will remain under the federal monitor until it is in full compliance, and must adopt all recommendations from the new report. The parties must present a proposal to reach compliance by April 4, ahead of another hearing April 11. 

“This is the third time since I’ve been overseeing the implementation, that the city has seemed to come close to full compliance —only to have a serious episode arise that exposes rot within the department,” Orrick said.

Mayor Thao said she is committed to making necessary changes, saying federal oversight has helped the city grow. 

“My goal is to be able to say … we’ve solved the problems, not just that we’ve mechanically implemented a list of recommendations,” she said. “I will not tolerate toxic subcultures that demonize officers who try to do the right thing.”

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