News & Opinion » News

Frazier Blocks Police Reforms

The court-appointed compliance director of the Oakland Police Department has unilaterally overruled a city council decision to improve citizen oversight of OPD.

by

comment

For the better part of two decades, Oakland residents have often objected to the city's process for taking complaints about police officers. Under the city's system, residents who want to make a complaint against a particular officer must make that complaint to a uniformed cop working for OPD's Internal Affairs Division. For some, the setup was intimidating, and it also bred cynicism because internal affairs routinely dismissed most of the complaints. After a 2005 survey revealed a high level of community distrust of OPD's complaint procedure, People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), a police watchdog group, began a campaign to allow residents to make complaints about police officers to civilians working for the independent Citizen's Police Review Board. The proposal also would allow the police department to reassign eight highly paid cops from complaint-receiving to patrol or other policing duties.

After years of struggling with then-Mayor Jerry Brown and the Oakland police union (the Oakland Police Officer's Association or OPOA), which both strongly opposed the proposal, PUEBLO convinced the city council in 2011 to approve $1.4 million to "consolidate the intake of complaints at the Citizens' Police Review Board [CPRB]" and fund the hiring of civilian employees to fill that role. The council also later repeatedly endorsed the reform measure, both as a way to move eight police officers off of desk duty, as well as to strengthen independent police oversight. The measure also called for serious allegations of police misconduct to still be investigated by internal affairs.

However, City Administrator Deanna Santana delayed implementation of the reform measure and opened up a protracted round of talks with the OPOA, which remained staunchly opposed to allowing civilians receive complaints about sworn officers. Frustrated by the delay, the city council voted unanimously in April to set an October 15 deadline for the transfer of complaints from internal affairs to the CPRB (see "Deanna Santana Blocks Reform of Internal Affairs," 5/8/13).

Then last week, court-appointed Compliance Director Thomas Frazier unilaterally overruled the council's decision. He ordered that while intake of misconduct allegations could be done by civilians, those civilians must work for the police department's Internal Affairs Division — and not for the CPRB. On September 11, Frazier emailed PUEBLO's executive director, Rashidah Grinage, regarding his decision: "I met with the Court this week," Frazier wrote, apparently referring to US District Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversees OPD's court-mandated reforms. "We decided that civilianization of IA [Internal Affairs] Intake should continue, and that the Intake Unit should remain in the Police Department."

Frazier's decision caught both PUEBLO and the council by surprise, because just days earlier, he had said he did not object to having civilians working for CPRB receive police misconduct complaints. Frazier did not respond to a request for comment for this story, so the exact reasons for his about-face are not clear. But his decision is already being viewed in the city as a political victory for Santana and the Oakland police union. It also raises questions about the federal court's ability to disregard a decision made by the city's elected representatives.

Councilmembers who spoke with Frazier last week said he is concerned that the historically underfunded CPRB may not have the staff or the experience to adequately handle such a high volume of complaints, and thus may interfere with OPD's efforts at coming into compliance with the court-mandated reforms that Frazier is responsible for implementing. "He felt it was very important for the integrity and quality of internal affairs investigations, which he is charged with improving, that the intake and investigations be housed in the same department," said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf.

In late August, Santana's office posted job descriptions online for the complaint-intake positions, stating that they would be within internal affairs — in apparent defiance of the council's earlier decision that those jobs be housed at the CPRB. Santana's actions prompted terse exchanges between her and Grinage. In justifying her decision to reclassify the job descriptions, Santana claimed that Frazier did not support transferring complaint intake out of internal affairs.

But Frazier quickly contradicted Santana, telling Grinage in an email that he did not intend to block the transfer of complaints to the CPRB. Then days later, Frazier sent Grinage a new email, saying he had changed his mind. Grinage was floored. "The court has screwed us," she said. "It's the veering from post to post that's most troubling," she said, pointing to Frazier's position changes. Frazier's actions, Grinage said, also represent a wake-up call for Oaklanders about the implications of federal control of the police department. "We've lost control of our democratic process," she said.

Frazier's new stance also runs counter to positions taken by other top law enforcement officials in the city. Interim Police Chief Sean Whent, Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa, and Independent Court Monitor Robert Warshaw all supported the legislated consolidation of complaints at the CPRB.

The Oakland police union, which did not return requests for comment on this matter, has not only opposed the transfer of misconduct allegations from the police department to the civilian watchdog agency, but it also has been at loggerheads with the CPRB for years. In 2004, the union unsuccessfully sued to remove officer names from CPRB documents and hearings based on a San Diego Superior Court ruling, Copley Press v. San Diego. Though OPOA's suit was unsuccessful, two years later the California Supreme Court determined that third-party government agencies, including police watchdog commissions, could not make public the identities of officers in misconduct complaints. The high court's ruling also greatly reduced the CPRB's ability to provide public oversight of police misconduct.

Frazier's changed stance also directly contradicted a decision made last week by the Oakland City Council. Just a day before Frazier's about-face, Schaaf had chaired a hearing in which the finance committee had voted not to approve the new positions Santana's office had advertised, unless they were moved back to the CPRB. "I was very surprised," Schaaf said. "This was very unexpected coming on the heels of the finance committee making a very strong statement that we would not approve the new positions unless the description was modified and placed in the CPRB," she said.

Councilwoman Desley Brooks said she was disappointed that the compliance director had chosen to override reforms that had been in the works for more than a decade and had buy-in throughout city government and current OPD brass. "The thought process of having intake in the CPRB was to make sure that citizens who felt like their rights had been violated had a place of redress and a place where they'd be comfortable in going," Brooks said. "It was pretty shocking to have one email from him stating he supported the position the committee took and the day after we took the vote, to have an email stating the opposite."

Brooks and Grinage also noted that if Santana had not delayed the civilianization of internal affairs intake, then those jobs would already be in place at the CPRB. "This was supposed to have been done long before the compliance director was a gleam in Judge Henderson's eye," Grinage said, referring to the fact that the council originally ordered civilianization of police complaints to be completed last year — before the judge appointed Frazier to be OPD's compliance director.

Frazier's change of heart — and the apparent decision by Henderson to go along with it — is even more puzzling considering the fact that the handling of internal affairs complaints has long been a problem for OPD, and is one of the main reasons that the court-mandated reform efforts have stalled. Independent Monitor Warshaw has repeatedly criticized the department for its failure to properly process and investigate citizen complaints. In his January 2012 report, Warshaw found an "unusually high number of 'unfounded' internal affairs investigations" — a classification that means the basis of the allegation supposedly has no merit. Unfounded allegations are not kept in an officer's personnel file, unlike complaints that have merit, but there is not enough evidence to prove them. Those cases are classified as "not sustained." Warshaw concluded that internal affairs officers had been improperly questioning the credibility of civilian complainants and disregarding them. Another Warshaw report issued in April of this year found that officers had not been collecting relevant evidence in an excessive-force allegation that took place in North County Jail.

On behalf of PUEBLO, Grinage has filed a complaint with the city's Public Ethics Commission against Santana, Mayor Jean Quan, and City Attorney Barbara Parker. The complaint states that Parker gave Santana advice to "meet and confer" with OPOA over the transfer of complaint intake to the CPRB. The complaint read: "OPOA objected to this change, and, instead of declaring an impasse, after an appropriate period of time, Ms. Santana continued negotiating a 'deal' with OPOA. The result was the posting of a job description in late August describing the intake personnel to be housed in Internal Affairs of the Police Department, rather than the CPRB under the City Administrator's budget."

The complaint goes on to state that the change in job positions was never approved by the city council, and that it should have been discussed in public. Grinage said that the level of behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the civilianization of complaint intake has prompted her and others concerned about Santana's actions to push for a ballot referendum that would remove the police department from the control of the city administrator's office and place it under a police commission. San Francisco has such a setup.

"The nature of it is corrupt from the get-go," Grinage said of the current structure of Oakland government, in which the city administrator oversees the police department and serves as the final arbiter of police discipline. When asked about the idea of a ballot referendum to shift to a police commission model, Schaaf was receptive. "I think that's a good discussion for us to be having," she said.

On Tuesday evening, the full council was scheduled to discuss the impact of Frazier's decision, including how OPD will fund the eight new civilian intake positions. The $1.4 million earmarked in the 2011-2013 budget for civilianization is still destined for the CPRB, and Councilwoman Lynette Gibson-McElhaney said she will put forth a proposal to repurpose those funds to hire additional CPRB personnel. "Nothing in Frazier's decision precludes us from strengthening civilian police oversight in Oakland," she said. "The council still controls the purse strings — however, it's a very different reality under this compliance director."

Add a comment