Oakland Plan for Police Oversight Draws Union Ire

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A proposal to create an independent police commission to oversee Oakland officers has encountered stiff resistance from labor unions and community activists who objected to a provision meant to strengthen disciplinary procedures for bad officers.
     The Oakland City Council was set to vote on the measure Tuesday night, but SEIU Local 1021 and the Coalition for Police Accountability submitted an amended proposal just before the vote.
     The council instead heard more than two hours of public testimony and action was postponed to a special meeting on July 26, when an updated measure incorporating the groups’ changes will be considered. If passed, the measure will go to voters in November.
     The original proposal, sponsored by councilmembers Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb, scrapped binding arbitration for police officers found guilty of misconduct in favor of appealing disciplinary decisions to the police commission. But the city’s labor unions and the Alameda Labor Council balked at the provision and pushed for an amended proposal that leaves arbitration intact.
     San Francisco and Los Angeles have already eliminated binding arbitration for police officers, and disciplinary appeals are brought before the police commission instead.
     Nevertheless, City Council president Lynette Gibson McElhaney on Tuesday called the measure “the most sweeping reform to the police department ever.”
     Last year, a court-appointed investigator found that most of the city’s disciplinary decisions are reversed at arbitration due to shoddy internal affairs investigations by the police department and city attorney, resulting in reduced penalties and even the reinstatement of an officer who was fired for killing an unarmed civilian.
     In March, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered a federal monitor to take over the police department’s investigation into recent allegations that a slew of its officers had sex with and trafficked an underage prostitute, after finding the department had mishandled the investigation.
     “I’m disappointed because I want them to stay fired,” acting Assistant Chief David Downing said at a public safety commission meeting last week. “Unfortunately, I have to take them back.”
     On Tuesday morning, SEIU Local 1021 and the Coalition for Police Accountability released a statement saying they had proposed a new police commission measure. The day before, the Coalition for Police Accountability sent new language to the City Council and the city attorney for consideration that leaves arbitration unchanged after the city’s unions struck all of the proposal’s arbitration language, the coalition’s Rashidah Grinage told Courthouse News.
     Although the Coalition for Police Accountability had eliminated binding arbitration in its own proposed ballot measure earlier this year, Grinage said her group has agreed to support arbitration to get the measure on the ballot, which has little chance of success without union backing, she said.
     “This is not about the merits of binding arbitration, and we’re not saying we agree with them, but we think this is a fight for when the contract comes up for renewal,” Grinage said. “That’s when they can take a stand, but not now and not in this context.”
     Leaving the proposal’s arbitration provision intact would have triggered a meet-and-confer process with the Oakland Police Officer’s Association that would have barred the City Council from getting the measure in front of voters, Grinage said.
     If approved, the seven-member civilian police commission will have the power to oversee the police department and propose changes to its policies and procedures. It will be able to investigate complaints of officer misconduct and even fire the chief. Under the original proposal, the chief would have had the final say in an officer’s punishment.
     Asked about the perception that organized labor is impeding police accountability by opposing reforms to arbitration, Local 1021 executive director John Stead-Mendez said Oakland’s politicians were largely to blame for police misconduct, echoing the court investigator’s conclusion that blame for the city’s dismal arbitration record lies just as squarely with its ambivalent politicians as it does with the police department and the city attorney.
     “We’re not defending bad cops,” Stead-Mendez said. “[City politicians] lack the will to prosecute bad actors.”
     He added, “We see over and over folks shot by police and then found not guilty because policy and the law are set to make that legal. Our members feel it in the community. It’s simply not the case that we’re a barrier to real reform. Police oversight is important for our community and supported by the union.”
     Grinage said the Coalition for Police Accountability is fighting to strengthen the ballot measure in other ways. The measure currently calls for the mayor to appoint three members to the commission, but the group wants an independent selection committee to appoint all seven members. Communities around the nation distrust their police commissions because of their flawed appointment processes, Grinage said.
     The current appointment process would create an inherent division between the mayoral appointees and the appointees selected by the panel, with implications for effectively addressing the commission’s mandate, she added.
     Nearly 100 activists joined the coalition on Tuesday urging the City Council to give the selection panel the authority to select all seven commission members independently.
     “With federal oversight ending, it is absolutely necessary we have oversight and it must be independent,” Tennille Duffy of the National Lawyers Guild told the council. “Otherwise, [police officers] are simply armed thugs that terrorize this community.”

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