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.