OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Oakland’s police oversight board faces a difficult job — how to proceed with a police department slammed by a federal judge while refusing to provide investigation records and a police chief on leave.
Oakland Police Department has been embroiled in yet another scandal during the past week, after an independent law firm reported two incidents of a sergeant, Michael Chung, failing to report crashing his vehicle in 2021 and firing his gun inside the Police Administration Building last year.
The report's accusations of corruption within the police department's internal investigations and disciplinary processes drove the city to place Chief LeRonne Armstrong on paid leave last Friday. U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick ordered the city Tuesday to come up with a new strategy to reach full compliance with the negotiated settlement agreement, remaining under the federal monitor in place for more than 20 years.
The Oakland Police Commission, the city board tasked with overseeing the actions of the police, will be part of that effort.
Commission chair Tyfahra Milele opened Thursday's meeting by calling it "an extraordinary moment" for reforming police work in Oakland. She said she plans to hold multiple meetings to discuss the investigative role of the commission in this matter, “ready to handle every function the monitor currently handles.”
The commission already had a long meeting ahead, including the police update on crime statistics and the Community Police Review Agency reporting on 155 pending cases against sworn officers in 2022 — but the commissioners highlighted how high-priority the need to strategize reform within the department is.
"It is up to us to fully assert ourselves and broadly interpret our own charter mandate to lead," Milele said. She reminded the commission that last October the board asked for documents of the recent incidents regarding Chung.
"We figured compliance would be forthcoming," she said. "To date, the city has yet to comply with the October requests and we have patiently followed up."
But the commission faced criticism for the length of time that has passed since October with no legal action against the police.
"Are you going to have the courage to sue the police department, if in fact they are in contempt and do not provide you with the information you need?" Millie Cleveland asked. "We're counting on you to conduct an objective investigation and receive all the proper documents you need. We need a police commission with some backbone."
Rev. Derron Jenkins read the charter language that gives the commission subpoena power over the police department — saying if those subpoenaed refuse to comply and provide documents, then the majority of commission members can find a department or staffer in contempt and move to legal proceedings.
“Let the people know there is integrity somewhere," he said.
“Black folks haven’t had justice since the beginning of time. But we’re looking for it now and we’re looking for it through your service. Please pick up the ball and run.”
Coalition for Police Accountability activist Rashidah Grinage said the commission did not follow up or bring the request for records back in subsequent meetings since October. The coalition has scheduled a separate panel to discuss the police department scandal for Friday evening.
“The (outside) firm was supposed to be reaching out and collaborating with (the) Community Police Review Agency," Grinage said. "Why didn’t it happen? Where was the ball dropped on that? Was it that the city attorney never informed them about the requirement in their contract that they needed to collaborate with Community Police Review Agency?”
Grinage added that she was concerned the other commissioners did not offer their thoughts or questions about the situation when asked.
“It’s very disturbing that the commissioners don't want to engage in questioning or dialogue around this issue,” she said.
Black homeless advocate Nino Parker was one of several who spoke to support the police chief.
“For years we wanted a Black police chief, and now we got him and people are trying to throw him under the bus,” he said.
However, others voiced concern that the independent report last week revealed interdepartmental bias, inappropriate relationships and officers using their cell phones on and off duty.
Rachel Beck said “There are benefits and drawbacks to having a chief that is from the community. It’s maybe not so helpful to be tied to and embroiled in the cultural problems of the department. Reformers don’t get ahead.”
The commission voted 6-0, with one absent, to approve requiring the police department to provide all records on the Sgt. Michael Chung incidents — including internal investigation reports, interview recordings or transcripts, body camera footage and discipline forms.
The commission spent more than two hours behind closed doors, discussing the city’s federal monitor case. Grinage recommended that they subpoena the department for the records and consider a contempt filing if those records are not produced within the required period of time.
But the commission did not report any action on the federal case, instead setting a special meeting Feb. 2.
Next, several subcommittees will likely be organized out of the commission. The commissioners must identify how to overhaul processes found to be out of compliance with the negotiated settlement terms — consistent discipline and internal affairs complaint procedures — and begin to dig away at strategies to meet recommendations from the independent report.
“There is a great deal of work to be done to ensure the integrity of investigations, as well as making sure that accountability happens and is … followed through and not watered down,” Commissioner Jesse Hsieh said.
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