Oakland, Calif. Voters to|Decide on Police Reforms

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Oakland voters will decide an initiative to set up a civilian police commission, but activists and some City Council members say the measure doesn’t go far enough to address decades of department scandals.
     The Oakland City Council passed the resolution in a unanimous vote Tuesday night amidst in-fighting and accusations by activists that it ignored their main demand to let an independent panel appoint all seven members to the commission. Instead, the mayor will appoint three members.
     “You had person after person stand here for hours tell you we do not trust the mayor to make these appointments,” Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project told the council during public comment. “This is the same tired thing they have in San Francisco that allowed the murder of Mario Woods.”
     The measure has gone through 36 iterations since 2014, at least two in the last month. With the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, the city’s employee unions and police reform activists lobbying for amendments, critics charge that the measure passed Tuesday is too weak to change how the police department conducts itself.
     In a move that stunned some councilmembers and elicited cheers from activists Tuesday night, councilmembers Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan introduced a surprise amendment to strike mayoral appointment power from the measure.
     The council blocked the motion, and Brooks told the audience that few councilmembers actually support complete civilian oversight of the police department. She accused the council of having been “bought off.”
     “I put that amendment out there because I wanted people to see the people who sit up here week after week and say they support you, they only support you so much,” Brooks told the audience.
     Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement on Monday that mayoral appointment power will not influence the commission.
     “The mayor is the most directly accountable official to the people,” Schaaf said in the statement. “It is a well-constructed composition with appropriate checks and balances. Appointees may not be removed and must meet certain qualifications, thus are unlikely to be subject to political influence.”
     The original measure had scrapped binding arbitration for police officers found guilty of misconduct, a move that would have addressed a federal investigator’s finding that the city loses most of its arbitration cases — resulting in what U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversees federal reforms in the police department, has characterized as a culture of impunity among officers.
     But some believe the police union threatened to sue over proposed changes to arbitration, and the city’s worker unions pressured councilmembers Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb to drop arbitration language from an earlier version of the measure before agreeing to support it.
     The police union did not return requests for comment on Monday.
     Although some activists charge that the measure has been stripped of any real power, Kalb said at the council meeting on Tuesday that it still “has teeth,” citing the ability of the commission’s investigative agency to recommend and impose discipline on officers.
     The commission will also have the power to subpoena police records, though only the head of the agency will have access to an officer’s personnel files. The commission’s authority to fire the police chief remains intact and it will be advised by an independent attorney. Previous versions of the measure had provided for a deputy city attorney to advise the commission.
     And while the City Council removed a provision putting a civilian in charge of the police department’s Office of the Inspector General, it is working on a companion ordinance to be considered after the summer recess that would give the job to a civilian reporting directly to the commission.
     Both Gallo and Kalb reiterated that they had proposed a stronger measure giving appointment power to citizens and eliminating arbitration, but had to compromise after years of resistance from constituent groups.
     “We cannot pass the initiative without their support,” Gallo said. “I can have what I have now and do what I did and compromise.”
     Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability, which has been fighting for a police commission for 20 years and was instrumental in putting the measure before voters, told Courthouse News recently that the measure wouldn’t pass in November unless it won the support of the city’s labor unions. SEIU Local 1021 committed to campaigning for the measure after arbitration language was removed.
     Gallo and Kalb said the city will address binding arbitration when it renegotiates its contract with the police officer’s union in 2018, and characterized the ballot measure as a first step toward a strong police commission.
     Grinage on Monday also cited police arbitration as an obstacle to reform, but said the City Council was as much to blame as the police union for negotiating a contract last year that includes it.
     “It takes two to make a contract,” she said in an interview.
     “Of course it’s more fashionable to blame police unions, but the real focus needs to be on political parties who have yielded,” Grinage said. “We need to hold these legislators accountable because they are the ones giving the length of power to unions.”

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