Proposal to Expand Oakland Police Commission Powers Stalls

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The Oakland City Council called Tuesday for further review of a proposal that would dramatically enhance the powers of a civilian commission overseeing the city’s police force. 

The proposed ballot measure would expand the nine-member commission’s power to change police department policies, hire and fire employees that review police misconduct and change how commissioners are appointed.

Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan, who co-sponsored the proposal, said the goal is to ensure the commission fulfils its mission of independent police oversight.

In 2016, Oakland voters approved a ballot measure to establish the independent police commission with an 83.2% majority. The measure was approved as the city faced criticism over police officers’ involvement in a sexual misconduct scandal with a teenage girl. The department also came under fire over findings that some officers had exchanged racist text messages.

During an Oakland City Council meeting Tuesday, interim police chief Susan Manheimer voiced concerns that the new proposal would allow civilians with little experience to start changing policies that affect day-to-day operations. The commission’s current authority is limited to policies that affect issues such as racial bias and police accountability.

“We want to make sure in the police department we maintain the overall technical expertise and operational standards that are so critical,” Manheimer said.

City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who co-sponsored the initiative with Kaplan, noted that the proposal would not automatically give the police commission power over every department policy. Rather, it would require a supermajority vote by the city council to delegate authority over certain policies to the commission. The City Council would also maintain power to veto or approve any policy changes enacted by the commission.

“It has checks and balances up the wazoo,” Kalb said Tuesday.

The proposal comes as the police commission has faced scrutiny over the Feb. 21 recommendation to fire former Oakland police chief Ann Kirkpatrick, which was approved by the mayor. Kirkpatrick claimed in an administrative complaint last week that she was fired for blowing the whistle on alleged misconduct by police commissioners.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf came out against the proposal in a statement Monday, arguing it “could seriously compromise public safety” by giving citizen volunteers power to “override any police operational decision, divert limited public safety resources, and prevent rapid response to public safety emergencies.”

A city administrator who analyzed the proposal concluded that it could burden department staff by forcing them to research and respond to a deluge of police commission policy proposals.

The ballot measure would allow the commission to employ contractors and hire and fire two key positions: an inspector general that audits the police department and the head of the Community Police Review Agency that investigates police misconduct.

Additionally, it would transfer the power to appoint commissioners from the mayor’s office to a selection panel. The measure would ban current and former employees of the local sheriff’s office and any municipal police department or organization that represents officers from serving on the selection panel. It would further ban employees of any municipal police department from serving as police commissioners.

The measure would also require the police chief or a designee attend commission meetings and submit annual reports on department spending and policy priorities. The chief would also be required to respond to all commission requests for information. Additionally, the city administration would be barred from conducting investigations aimed at removing police commissioners.

The measure would require that all complaints against police officers be forwarded to the commission within one day after the department receives them. It would further ensure that commissioners get the same access to police department files that the inspector general and police complaint review agency can access.

During the meeting Tuesday, Oakland City Councilmember Larry Reid said he would not support the measure in its current form.

“I don’t want the police commission running the police department because none of them have any experience running police departments,” Reid said, adding he would also prefer to wait for a city auditor’s report on the police commission before making a decision.

Kaplan suggested that the council might strip the proposal down so it only gives the commission power to hire and fire its own inspector general and legal staff. Those are the two least controversial parts of the proposed ballot measure.

The council voted to send the proposal back to the police commission for further review and to reconsider a revised version at a future meeting.

Oakland has been under federal court oversight since 2003 when it settled a civil rights lawsuit over the “Riders” scandal, which involved police officers allegedly beating, robbing and planting evidence on residents of an impoverished neighborhood in West Oakland.

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