Oakland police approach end of federal oversight, local organizations urge diligence to prevent corruption | Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Oakland police approach end of federal oversight, local organizations urge diligence to prevent corruption

The police department spent 20 years under a federal judge's monitor amid scandal, and local organizations say they still want to see more work done as that oversight may end next year.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — As Oakland Police Department enters a one-year trial to win an end to federal oversight over its operations, local organizers and researchers say they have mixed feelings about whether the city has made significant changes to stop police brutality.

Oakland has been ground zero for national debates over police department accountability and criminal justice reform. As of June 1, the police department’s period of oversight under a federal monitor has entered a “probationary period,” signaling the end of a case which has been underway for two decades. It began in December 2000 when 119 plaintiffs accused four veteran police officers called the “Riders” of false arrest, excessive use of force, falsifying police reports and assault and battery. The department agreed in 2003 to take on vigorous reforms, but a string of scandals have rocked the department in the last decade.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled this month the department has one year to be found satisfactorily in compliance with the negotiated settlement requirements.

The department has proclaimed success updating policy like its use of deadly force standard. Oakland claims the department has among the lowest incidents of fatal and non-fatal officer involved shootings among the nation’s largest police departments, and allegations and payouts for brutality and excessive force are down dramatically, according to NPR.  Voters approved a civilian oversight board in a 2016 ballot measure, and in 2020, that Police Commission fired the city’s police chief. The city has hired an inspector general, a member of the public which the Commission oversees. 

Chief LeRonne Armstrong said by email last week, “Many people thought this day would never come.” He said OPD is in compliance with 50 of 51 negotiated settlement agreement tasks and by issuing this court order, “Orrick acknowledged the hard work of the women and men of our department, City Attorney’s Office, Mayor and Police Commission.”

“Our officers will continue to practice constitutional policing and hold one another accountable,” Armstrong said.

The police union and Mayor Libby Schaaf did not respond to requests for comment.

City Councilmember Carroll Fife said via email “I am elated that the continued work of Oakland activists, lawyers and families impacted by police violence have created an environment that pushed OPD to abide by fundamental basics of protect and serve.”

She said she hopes to use funds saved from oversight “to address community needs and the root causes of crime.”

“I hope that when the spotlight goes away, we do not return to an era of violence that will take us right back to where we were,” she added.

Local organizations which have called for increased reform and accountability measures say if oversight ends, they want to see more work done to ensure ongoing change. Some want to see more transparency around the police budget and calls data, and more accountability for officers involved in scandals. 

James Burch of Anti Police-Terror Project said he is disappointed in the decision to remove the monitor from a police department “consistently mired in scandal.”

“For those of us who are following closely, it's abundantly clear nothing has changed,” Burch said. “No one can say the department has changed or bettered itself.”

He said he thought there was a lack of accountability for officers implicated in the sex trafficking scandal in 2016, when the East Bay Express reported three officers allegedly had sexual relations with an underage teenage girl. Considering the Joshua Pawlik shooting in 2019 — when five officers were fired after killing the homeless man in 2018 — and the 2020 tear gassing of people in George Floyd protests, he said he does not believe the police department has demonstrated a real culture change. 

Protesters March toward Oakland City Hall on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Nicholas Iovino)

“It’s also difficult to have a mayor who is not at all interested in holding the police department accountable or providing transparency when it comes to police actions,” Burch added.

Some think the Police Commission will be key to keep holding the department accountable.

Bruce Schmiechen, of Interfaith Coalition for Justice in Our Jails, said in an interview Thursday he thinks the city should focus on improving quality of policing and “discipline for not reporting actions by other officers, that blue wall of silence.” He said the Commission, while “not perfect,” can handle these tasks. The body can only be overridden by a majority vote from the City Council.

Schmiechen said he thinks the Commission needs to assess policies that have been initiated by holding robust review processes, interviewing officers and using an analyst to see if and how policies are being implemented. He also thinks the Commission wrote a new use of force policy that “is one of the strongest in the country.”

Attorney and former public defender Brain Bloom said he’s interacted with “various officers of Oakland who would lie in court or lie on their police reports” and thinks that the Commission provides a more robust process for reviewing legal violations by police beyond the District Attorney and judiciary process.

“If the federal oversight is going to end, (we need) a really robust police commission with the power of subpoena and the power to investigate,” he said, so that “It’s not just a watchdog in name only, but a real, effective watchdog.”

But Burch said he disagrees with commissions that allow city councilmembers to select participants, which “makes it very difficult to utilize them to hold police accountable or build structures for police accountability.”

“We’re keenly aware the boards and commissions are only as valuable as the community organizers and advocates and community members who organize around them and make sure they are used to hold our government accountable.”

Coalition for Police Accountability spokesperson Rashidah Grinage said in a phone interview Wednesday that “time will tell” if the judge and federal monitor will actually end the oversight. The Coalition helped pass the ballot measure for creating the Police Commission in 2016, so that “once oversight ended, there would be a continued ability to oversee and monitor the department with authority.”

Grinage said the department needs to address racial discrimination, including a recent Instagram scandal where nine officers were disciplined for posting racist and sexist memes on social media. She said the department’s many departures and exit interviews which often cite disagreement with increased discipline for misconduct must be scrutinized. And she wants city administrators to avoid repeating actions in the Pawlik case, when they hired an outside firm to do their own case review prior to binding arbitration. 

There has been progress diverting some tasks from the department, Grinage said, such as the MACRO program placing case workers on the ground to answer crisis calls. These workers started this April after the Coalition helped launch the program in 2019, to lighten police’s workload so they can respond to other emergencies. 

Schmiechen said he has concerns that incidents of racial profiling during traffic stops have not sigficiantly decreased, according to Department of Justice reports on Oakland this year under the RIPA Act.

“They’re doing fewer traffic stops for minor incidents … but the ratios have not really gone down,” he said. “It doesn't say the racial profiling has improved, it just means the entire category has improved.”

He said that although some police officers have left, his opinion is that “If you can't operate under these structures that have more accountability, go ahead.”

“The culture of policing is resistant to change.” Schmiechen added. “I just think the police culture has a history of racial issues internally.” He said a cultural “white supremacist cowboy kind of thing” may be entrenched in every police department. 

Jon Simon, criminal justice professor at Berkeley, said Oakland’s case has shown the country what happens when police departments use “brutal tactics, that were way outside the bounds of what people believe the police department should be for.”

“There’s a widespread belief that this is behind us,” he said. “But a couple of things should sober us up. This is the longest oversight ever conducted of an American police department. They (the court) frequently failed to find enough to relinquish their oversight of them.” 

While glad to see that the “Riders” period seems to have ended, and traffic stops have reportedly gone down, Simon said the Commission’s work will be key. Federal courts are constrained, and “They have a difficult time broadening out to capture all of what’s happening,” he said.

As a political body, he said Oakland’s commission shows there can be active, “sustainable politics of abolition and anti-racist transformation of the legal system here. Having a commission that does present a source of democratic accountability, that has the attention of a lot of voters, is a promising sign going forward, maybe better than a federal court.” 

However, he said, “This has taken over two decades. What does that say for … places with deep histories of racism and mistreatment of their Black and Brown communities? Oakland’s sort of a small pond, but with a deep depth to its racism and policing problem.”

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