Oakland police closer than ever to getting out of federal surveillance

After nearly two decades, the Oakland Police Department is one step closer to emerging from federal oversight.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick, in a hearing on Wednesday afternoon, said the OPD had made enough progress in carrying out court-mandated reforms to begin a one-year sustainability period to put end of monitoring.

Entering the one-year period is a milestone for a reform program that dates back to 2003, when the city settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by 119 people alleging that a group of officers known as the Riders name had violated their civil rights.

If the OPD can demonstrate that it can sustain the progress it has made without a federal judge and oversight team looking over its shoulder, the reform program can end after the probationary period of a year.

“If the DPO does not fully comply and remain fully compliant during the durability period, the court’s oversight will continue. It doesn’t work to run out of time on this,” Orrick said. “I will be an extraordinarily happy person if in a year and a bit we can bring this part of Oakland history to a close.”

Orrick praised progress under Chief LeRonne Armstrong, but said he expected the OPD to be in full compliance with all 52 court-ordered reform tasks. One task remains: to ensure that agents are systematically disciplined, following studies which showed that black officers were disproportionately punished.

The judge also said he expected the OPD to enact changes, including a social media and cellphone policy recommended following an investigation into an Instagram account created by a former police officer who propagated racist, sexist and anti-police remarks. content of the reform.

Nonetheless, Orrick said he will soon issue a court order outlining the start of the probationary period and outlining the steps the city must take during the one-year window.

At a press conference at City Hall after the hearing, Mayor Libby Schaaf said Oakland leaders are committed to moving the police forward. Schaaf was joined by Chief Armstrong, Oakland Police Commission Chairwoman Tyfahra Milele and new Citizens Commission Inspector General Michelle Phillips.

“This is not something that will never be finished. It is an ongoing quest for us as leaders of Oakland to ensure that our police department is a national model, is at the forefront of progressive and professional policing,” Schaaf said.

A saga of more than twenty years of scandals, reforms, setbacks and progress

The OPD’s reform efforts began in 2000 when a rookie police officer, Keith Batt, blew the whistle about brutal and dishonest tactics he witnessed on the job in West Oakland. The department investigated and found that four officers – Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung and Frank Vazquez – had beaten suspects, planted drugs on some and made false reports, among other misdeeds. The four were fired and Mabanag, Siapno and Hornung were tried twice, with each trial ending in acquittals on some charges while the jury was deadlocked on others. Vazquez fled and remains a fugitive to this day.

The city has also faced a civil rights lawsuit brought by victims of the Riders. In 2003, Oakland settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay more than $10 million and complete a series of reforms known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, or NSA. Initially, oversight by a team of independent monitors and a federal judge was to last five years.

Progress on NSA reforms was slow or non-existent in the early years. In the mid-2000s, OPD officers participated in many controversial shootings and other lethal uses of force. Other scandals, including allegations of illegal public strip searches, falsification of mandatesand the mishandling of high-profile investigations like the case against Your Black Muslim Bakery supporters who murdered journalist Chauncey Baileyled to the extension of the OPD’s reform programme.

The department’s violent response to the Occupy Oakland protests, which resulted in the injury of veteran Scott Olsen, nearly led to a complete takeover of the department by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversaw the reforms at the time.

From 2013 to early 2016, the Oakland Police Department appears to be back on track. Shootings involving officers have dropped, as have other uses of force. Crime was also down. But the explosive sexual exploitation scandal which involved several OPD officers and police from other departments, was a massive setback, resulting in the dismissal or resignation of three chiefs within a week.

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong at McClymonds High School on February 9, 2021 during his swearing-in ceremony. Credit: Amir Aziz

Former Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was hired in 2017 to clean up the department”toxic macho cultureas Mayor Schaaf described it at the time. But during Kirkpatrick’s tenure, the OPD failed to comply with several key tasks of the reform accord. After being laid off in early 2020, the current department head, LeRonne Armstrong, was hired.

During his swearing-in ceremony in early 2021, Armstrong pledged to bring the OPD into compliance with all required reforms. At the time, there were seven NSA tasks left for OPD to complete. Under Armstrong’s leadership, the OPD completed two tasks last summer related to how it investigates use-of-force incidents and police shootings.

Still some hesitation from civil rights lawyers involved in the reform effort

Recent progress has been the consensus of the Oakland City Attorney’s Office and plaintiffs’ attorneys James Chanin and John Burris, who wrote in a joint filing that Orrick should consider starting the durability period. Chanin and Burris filed the lawsuit that led to the NSA and continue to represent the plaintiffs.

The lawyers argued that the OPD is a much better police agency than it was 20 years ago. In a recent court filing, they said reducing racial disparities in police checks “is tangible evidence of the real and lasting cultural change the NSA was meant to achieve.”

Burris said he expects the OPD to put checks and balances in place to deal with any issues that arise after the NSA is terminated.

“It’s not something for today or even next year that we’re working towards,” Burris told the court. “It’s about a generation. What worries me is the way people are treated on the street. For me, the question is what is in place to ensure that these kinds of issues will be taken care of in the future.

Chanin said he was “somewhat hesitant” for the OPD to enter the sustainability period, given that they have not achieved full compliance.

“We are not looking for perfection in this time of sustainability. What we’re looking for is a department that can and will identify major issues and scandals if they arise and won’t leave that job to someone else,” Chanin said. “All of the major scandals in recent years were uncovered by someone else, either a reporter, the monitor, a member of city council, the plaintiffs’ attorneys, or some combination. I’m not convinced…that it will be presented by the OPD itself.

Rockne Lucia, an attorney representing the Oakland Police Union, said “the checks and balances, the process to identify the issues, to resolve the issues exist.”

“There is a structure in place that is unparalleled and unprecedented in the state and probably the entire country. There is not a police department in the state that has integrated into the culture the training that this department has developed. I am happy that their efforts are about to be rewarded.

In his most recent report, Robert Warshaw, who has been the OPD’s Independent Observer since 2010, said the OPD had reached an important milestone and congratulated Chief Armstrong and the OPD staff. “for their tenacity and commitment to ensuring that the tasks of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, which constitute modern and progressive policing, have been achieved.

However, Warshaw and Orrick said the remaining task, which OPD partially complies with, is critical to ending the NSA.

“Disparity in discipline is a significant issue,” Warshaw wrote. “By releasing this report, the department has reduced the issues to a simple matter of outcomes of disciplinary processes, and arguably, it has groped them.”

Warshaw and his oversight team will continue to oversee the department during the durability period, but will focus on a smaller set of reform tasks that the judge said are central to the reform.

The next hearing before Orrick will be on September 14.

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