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The People's Police Department

Why federal consent decrees are working in Detroit, but not in Oakland.

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"The community was desperate and they really wanted a police department to do something," said civil rights attorney Jim Chanin. The OPD adopted what some viewed as a "by-any-means-necessary" approach to policing. "And this behavior took care of crime, so people just let it go down," Chanin said.

It was in this atmosphere that four OPD narcotics officers — Francisco Vasquez, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung, and Clarence Mabanag — thrived. They called themselves "The Riders."

These rogue officers were notorious for beating and framing countless drug suspects in West Oakland. By 2000, 129 people had accused The Riders of crimes that included assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. In total, these people had served forty years behind bars for crimes they likely had never committed.

As the criminal charges against The Riders mushroomed, other civil rights lawsuits emerged, and at least twenty other officers were implicated in similar abuses. Civil rights attorney John Burris, who co-represented with Chanin the people victimized by "The Riders," said it became clear that the situation wasn't the product of a few bad apples. "There was a culture of brutality, a culture of lawlessness that existed," Burris said. "But most troubling was an unwillingness within the department to hold officers accountable for their conduct."  

In 2003, in an effort to avoid crippling taxpayer payouts, the City of Oakland agreed to a federal consent decree, also known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA). Written as a 5-year, 51-point plan, the decree aimed to make the department more accountable.

And today, OPD has partially met that goal. Deputy Chief Sean Whent, who has worked on the force for sixteen years, including stints in the department's internal affairs division, said that the changes the department has made as a result of the consent decrees have enabled it to be more responsible and forward-thinking. "Every complaint is investigated now, whereas in the past some were just filed," he said. "We also do much better investigations of uses of force, even low-level uses of force. We report out and track the statistics on that a lot more." Substantial improvements have also been made to internal affairs and how complaints are handled.

But despite these positive changes, OPD remains a hotbed of misconduct. Over the past decade the department accrued an astonishing number of complaints and misconduct payouts, totaling roughly $60 million since 2003. This is evidence that while OPD has changed its policies, it hasn't fully changed its practices.

A big reason for this discrepancy has been an often-hostile attitude toward the decree — not just from rank-and-file officers, but also from the department's top brass. In short, there has been no Ralph Godbee in Oakland. This lack of a strong and consistent leader is key to understanding why the department has had such a tumultuous decade under the consent decree.


When the decree was signed in 2003, Richard Word was chief, and for two years "there was virtually no movement at all on the reforms," noted Rashidah Grinage, director of PUEBLO, a police watchdog group. "He was very popular among the rank-and-file, but he didn't get anything done on the NSA."  

This indifference traveled down the chain of command, and in their fourth report in 2004, federal monitors observed: "Commanders [had] an open disdain of Settlement Agreement training ... which [was] undermining reform efforts."

In 2005, federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversees the department's progress, took notice, saying that he had "never seen anything like this in 25 years [as a judge.] This is contemptuous. I'm so angry at the slap in the face, the ignoring of this decree."

The same year that Henderson issued his condemnation, Mayor Brown replaced Chief Word with Wayne Tucker. A veteran of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, Tucker made reforming the department his priority. Two years later, in their eighth quarterly report, the court monitors commended Tucker for giving the department the "momentum" to "achieve significant compliance with the agreement."

By 2009, OPD had successfully implemented a number of system-wide reforms. Each officer was assigned a clearly defined, single supervisor. Early identification and intervention systems were set up to catch problem officers, misconduct investigations became more thorough and timely, and use-of-force investigations improved. These improvements set the foundation for "a strong culture of effective, responsive, and accountable policing," federal monitors stated.

If Tucker had remained chief, the Oakland Police Department may very well be in full compliance with the NSA today. But in 2009 he retired, after a public feud with the city council — which was on the verge of approving a no-confidence vote in him as crime worsened in the city. Tucker responded by contending that the council had only paid lip service to the reforms and public safety.

Then-Mayor Ron Dellums hired Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts to replace Tucker. Batts often talked publicly of the importance of implementing the NSA reforms, but, in reality, showed little to no interest in actually doing so. "When he first became chief he told me that for too long, the consent decree has been more important than fighting crime," Chanin said. "And he came in and said: 'I'm going to reverse that.'"

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