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Oakland police chief on paid leave following investigations revealing failures to discipline officers

This is the latest in a string of scandals that have rocked Oakland's police department, accused of misconduct at multiple levels.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Oakland’s police chief is on administrative leave Thursday, after a federal judge made public a scathing report of officer misconduct identified in three confidential investigations.

Chief LeRonne Armstrong is now on paid leave, following new findings that officers under him concealed their involvements in dangerous public incidents — including a traffic collision in 2021 and a gun being fired in an elevator in 2022.

The Oakland Police Officers' Association has not responded to requests for comment.

“The decision was not taken lightly, but we believe that it is critical for the safety of our community that we build trust and confidence between the Department and the public. We must have transparency and accountability to move forward as a safer and stronger Oakland," Mayor Sheng Thao said in a statement.

Oakland Police Department has been under a federal monitor for more than two decades after a string of scandals involving multiple police officers — including alleged police brutality and sexual assault — sparking national outcry and many protests. Last summer, U.S. District Judge William Orrick signaled an end to the monitor could be in sight as the police department was placed on "probation" with one year to be found satisfactorily in compliance with negotiated settlement requirements.

However, an independent legal firm was retained to continue investigating officer misconduct in several incidents identified in 2021 and 2022. Local advocates and lawyers have since expressed their concern that the police department has not made the necessary changes in organization and internal management to win back public trust.

‘Multiple failures’

The report by Clarence Dyer and Cohen LLP, made public by the judge’s order on Wednesday, found that “The actions of OPD’s Internal Affairs Division, which sought to recast, deflect, and minimize the severity of the officer’s misconduct created an environment that allowed that officer to go on to commit far more egregious and dangerous misconduct, to wit: discharging a weapon in a building full of people."

Investigators detailed a March 2021 incident where a sergeant crashed his vehicle, left the scene and did not report the incident — and the Internal Affairs Division concluded he had not violated a rule requiring obedience to laws for what amounted to a hit and run.

In April 2022, the same officer fired his gun inside an elevator at the Police Administration Building in Oakland, removed evidence and did not report it for more than a week. The independent law firm reviewed both incidents and found additional potential misconduct involving the Criminal Investigation Division, launching a third, separate investigation.

“The multiple failures, at every level, to hold this sergeant responsible, belie OPD’s stated position that it can police itself and hold its members accountable for misconduct,” according to the law firm’s report. “Instead, investigators were left with the impression that the system is designed not to uncover the truth and hold those who commit misconduct to account, but instead to find ways to minimize misconduct such that OPD members are able to avoid serious discipline.”

The report made a series of recommendations to address the misconduct. The police department is urged to require officers at multiple levels to recuse themselves from misconduct investigations if they were directly involved in incidents or have relationships with involved parties, and document all briefings on details of these cases. Internal Affairs is advised to develop a policy requiring investigators to include all violations in final reports, and the Chief of Police must read reports of investigations before signing them. 

The report noted multiple witnesses did not know how to report personal relationships between sworn officers, and recommended the department create a policy around what relationships are acceptable and which should be reported. 

The report also found that Oakland police officers regularly use their personal cell phones for work-related purposes, while on active duty and while off-duty — and multiple officers use personal cell phones for “everything” work-related. OPD-issued cell phones are used by multiple officers as cameras to photograph evidence at crime scenes. Multiple officers admitted that their personal cell phones are set to auto-delete text messages after as few as 30 days. 

“This haphazard use of personal and work telephones raises serious concerns about the deletion of evidence, and there appears to be little regard for the need to preserve evidence that may be critical in regular police work as well as Internal Affairs investigations that arise,” the report said. “Moreover, the investigations were hampered by a complete lack of clarity about whether current Internal Affairs Division rules permit investigators to compel production of text or telephone messages maintained on personal telephones even when important evidence is known to exist on those personal telephones used in connection with OPD duties.”

The report also said under current standards, an officer is not explicitly required to be mentally fit for duty, including those experiencing severe mental health distress. The department should communicate about how officers experiencing mental health crises should talk to commanders, and provide support and training, it concluded.

Finally, the department must review and improve all policies, practices and training regarding criminal misconduct investigations, given that the investigation revealed “systemic failures far larger and more serious than the actions of one police officer.” 

“OPD must take the necessary steps to review the failures of its internal affairs processes and to commit to more rigorously investigating misconduct to prevent the recurrence of similar, or more serious, events in the future,” the report concluded.

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