Toxic Culture Persists in Oakland Police Department, Lawyers Say

Civil rights lawyers say the Oakland Police Department’s reluctance to investigate troubling social media posts with suspected links to its officers represents a “cataclysmic failure of judgment and leadership.”

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — An internal probe of social media posts that mock excessive force accountability and portray female officers as objects of sexual conquest “speaks to a festering and rotten” culture in the Oakland Police Department, civil rights lawyers said in a court filing Friday.

The city’s police department has been under court oversight for 18 years under the terms of a 2003 civil rights settlement that was set to expire in 2010. Oversight was extended multiple times after the department failed to achieve certain milestones, such as making its use-of-force policies, internal investigations and officer discipline processes comply with standards outlined in the agreement.

In a court filing Friday, civil rights lawyers raised alarms about disturbing themes and imagery in Instagram posts with suspected links to the Oakland Police Department. The @crimereductionteam account “implies institutional knowledge” of OPD because the department has a Crime Reduction Team focused on reducing violent and serious offenses, according to the lawyers.

On Sept. 23, an Oakland police sergeant sent an email to department employees warning them that interacting with or merely following an account that “is questionable or spouts negative rhetoric could reflect poorly on you.” The email included a screenshot of @crimereductionteam’s Instagram page. 

Later that day, @crimereductionteam posted an image of a rodent puppet captioned “after department wide email comes out about us” with a comment stating “Only took 5 days.” Civil rights lawyers say the post suggests whoever reported the social media account to supervisors is “a rat.”

Three days later, another post showed an image of a cartoon couple with text suggesting that anyone who “unfollowed @crimreductionteam because of a departmentwide email” is “a fucking idiot.”

One post showed an image of a math equation superimposed over an actor’s face titled, “Trying to remember how many times you punched a suspect in the face,” followed by a comment stating, “I used the necessary force to effect the arrest.” The post appears to make light of police brutality and suggests officers should “obscure the amount of force used,” civil rights lawyers complained.

Another post suggests officers should keep quiet after witnessing colleagues use excessive force on suspects. Yet another makes light of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

Other posts denigrate internal affairs investigators, including one that shows Oprah Winfrey in a celebratory pose, implying that Internal Affairs investigators are delighted to discipline officers for using force on protesters. It also suggests officers who turn their body cameras on during protests, as required by OPD policy, risk being disciplined by “people who haven’t worked the streets in years.”

A separate post depicts female officers as objects of sexual conquest. Another uses racist and sexist overtones to imply in a crass and vulgar manner that supervisors and “spineless cops” will treat a “cop that just wants to fight crime” unfairly.

The Instagram account and its suspected links to Oakland police officers were first reported by Darwin Bondgram of Oaklandside on Jan. 11. OPD delayed launching a probe into the social media posts until after journalists started asking questions about it in early January. Civil rights lawyers say that represents a “cataclysmic failure of judgment, and leadership” in their court filing.

Oaklandside also reported last month that OPD officers “liked” a former Oakland officer’s Facebook posts supporting a pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

On Jan. 14, U.S. District Judge William Orrick, who oversees compliance with the 18-year-old settlement, directed the court-appointed monitor to ensure OPD thoroughly investigates the issue and takes appropriate action.

“The investigation may well demonstrate the defendants’ commitment to accountability and the sustainability of the reforms in the [negotiated settlement agreement]; these are key to ending court oversight,” Orrick wrote.

The Oakland Police Department recently hired a new police chief, LeRonne Armstrong, who has worked for the department for more than 20 years, most recently as deputy chief. During his swearing-in ceremony on Feb. 8, Armstrong said OPD will have a “laser focus” on meeting the goals for six outstanding tasks it must comply with to end nearly two decades of court oversight. 

Those tasks include developing compliant policies for reporting, documenting and investigating use-of-force incidents, creating boards that effectively review use-of-force incidents and refining protocols for police shooting investigations.

Civil rights lawyer John Burris, who represents plaintiffs in the OPD oversight case, said in an email Friday that he found the social media posts “very disturbing,” but he was not surprised to learn that some OPD officers have racist and misogynistic attitudes.

“Hopefully those can be identified and removed,” Burris said. “Officers with these attitudes should not be in Oakland.”

OPD did not respond to an email requesting comment Friday, but the department said in a court filing that it is “confident that under Chief Armstrong’s leadership the Department will continue to demonstrate its commitment to fair and equitable policing, community safety, and sustained improvement.”

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