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Jury finds ex-Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was wrongfully terminated, awards damages

The whistleblower retaliation trial of former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick concluded Thursday with a swift verdict finding the city fired her for reporting misconduct.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A nine-member jury found Thursday former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was fired in retaliation for sounding the alarm on corruption within the civilian police commission.

The outcome of the trial hinged on the jury’s answer to two questions: whether the city of Oakland unlawfully terminated her for disclosing to the city conduct she had reasonable cause to believe is unlawful, and whether the city violated her free speech rights by terminating her in retaliation for making reports on a matter of public concern.

The jury answered "yes" to the first, and “no” to the second.

“We thought she was speaking in her capacity as chief,” said Madison Jewel, one of the jurors. She added, “We thought there was evidence that retaliation played some role in her discharge, which was why we found it was unlawful.”

The city of Oakland, the jury found, also did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have fired her anyway for legitimate, independent reasons even if she never made the reports.

Kirkpatrick hugged her attorneys and left the courtroom beaming. She declined to speak on the record, referring questions to her attorneys, but did say that she was happy with the verdict.

The jury, which delivered its verdict after just two hours of deliberation, awarded Kirkpatrick $337,635 in economic and emotional damages.

“We are grateful to the members of the jury for their service. After hearing the evidence, they decided that Ms. Kirkpatrick was entitled to nothing more than the severance the city stood willing to pay the day she was terminated,” said lead attorney for the city Katharine Van Dusen, a partner with the firm Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, in a statement to Courthouse News.

Kirkpatrick's reports involved three emails sent to the Oakland city auditor, the mayor, and the city attorney’s office about incidents where Kirkpatrick believed commissioners were trying to use their positions on the commission to get some private benefit.

Another email, sent Oct. 11, 2019, was a “formal complaint” to city officials about the police commission following a commission contentious meeting where Kirkpatrick butted heads publicly with chair Regina Jackson and vice-chair Ginale Harris.

“This was a brave woman who took a brave stance and paid a price for it,” her attorney James Slaughter told the jury in his summation.

Kirkpatrick was fired on Feb. 20, 2020 after the seven-member civilian commission voted to ask the mayor to join them in terminating her without cause.

Under voter-passed Measure LL, the commission had the authority to fire Kirkpatrick for cause, but needed the mayor to agree if they sought to fire her without cause.

"The chief has been vindicated. We said all along that she was retaliated against and the jury agreed," said Slaughter, a partner with Keker Van Nest & Peters.

In his closing, Slaughter walked the jury through a timeline of events, saying the commission began looking for a way to oust Kirkpatrick for her reports.

In March 2018, he said commissioners Harris and Jose Dorado met with two neighborhood service coordinators — civilian employees of the department — and sought to steer Oakland police department resources to their own neighborhoods. He said Harris told them that she “had a history of having people fired.”

In September 2018, Harris visited police headquarters and complained about having to pay a fee for her car being towed, reportedly flashing her commissioner badge at a records clerk. Kirkpatrick interpreted this as Harris “asking us for a favor” and told her so.

The city hired Public Interest Investigations to look into the NSC and tow incidents after receiving Kirkpatrick's reports.

Slaughter said Harris was irate and in a meeting with the city auditor, Harris attributed the investigation to either Kirkpatrick or Virginia Gleason, a high level civilian staffer of the police department.

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Slaughter also showed the jury an email Harris sent commissioners Regina Jackson and Edwin Prather on Sept. 4, 2019 saying she still had not received an apology from Kirkpatrick about the tow incident. Two days later, the commission sent Kirkpatrick a letter notifying her that they would begin meeting in closed session to do a “for cause” assessment of her job performance.

On Oct. 11, 2019, the day after a contentious police commission meeting where Kirkpatrick butted heads publicly with Harris and Jackson, Kirkpatrick sent an email formally complaining to city officials — including the mayor and city attorney — about the way she and her staff were treated.

The fourth email involved an episode in which Harris allegedly used her badge to influence the San Francisco Police Department during a confrontation with an administrator at her son’s school. Harris was later exonerated by the public ethics commission for that incident.

But in January 2020, the PII investigation into the NSC and tow incidents was reported in the Oakland Post.

“When the investigation became public the commission circled the wagons and fired her,” Slaughter said.

He displayed for the jury a statement from Dorado. “Nothing will happen to Ginale,” Dorado said. "I will tell you that many, if not most, of the commissioners feel as I do. We have her back and we always will and if anybody doubts that, bring it, and you will see.”

On Feb. 11, 2020, commissioners Jackson and Prather met with Mayor Libby Schaaf to inform her that they had decided to go forward with a “for-cause” termination process.

Two days later, Schaaf sent them an email saying, ”how do we put the city in the best position to defend claims or avoid them altogether?"

Schaaf testified at trial that she did not think the commission had cause to fire the chief.

At a follow up meeting on Feb. 17, this time with commissioner Henry Gage III also in attendance, Slaughter said Schaaf suggested a “not for cause” termination.

"The commissioners knew this was the path of least resistance and took her up on the offer,” Slaughter said.

The commissioners voted to ask the mayor to join them in a without-cause termination on Feb. 20.

Slaughter said Kirkpatrick would not have been fired if the commission had not gone to the mayor to push for it. “The commission goes to the mayor and says they are considering a for cause termination. Why? Because they were circling the wagons around Harris and were upset by the chief’s reports," he said. "The mayor was surprised but caved to the commission and proposed a not for cause termination to try to limit the city's liability.”

The jury seemed to agree. “The mayor would not have terminated her at that time if the police commission had not come to her about having enough votes for a for-cause termination,” Jewel said.

She also said Dorado’s testimony that the emails played a “small role” in his vote was a large piece of evidence that swayed the jury.

In her closing, Van Dusen said the city would have fired Kirkpatrick even if she never made the reports.

“No city is going to decide to remove an otherwise high performing chief for those kinds of minor issues. Of course the city would have made the same decision,” Van Dusen said.

Van Dusen argued that Kirkpatrick was fired for poor job performance as the department regressed under her leadership on court-mandated police reform, and that the commissioners were troubled by her handling of both the killing of a homeless man by police in March 2018 and her alleged failure to address racism with the ranks.

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