Last week, court-appointed compliance director Thomas Frazier released a long-awaited remedial action plan for the Oakland Police Department. It's intended to jump-start OPD's stagnant effort at completing federally mandated reforms instituted a decade ago. The former Baltimore police commissioner's plan calls for increased training for investigators, supervisors, and command staff, and the purchase of new crowd-control munitions, officer-tracking software, and radios, along with expenditures on vehicle repairs. In all, Frazier proposes spending $1.8 million.
But more importantly, the action plan also reveals the extent of the compliance director's new authority: Frazier has decided to take the unprecedented step of reinvestigating several high-profile police misconduct cases in which he had previously determined that the department's own investigations and disciplinary actions were biased or not sufficient. I've learned that one of the cases Frazier plans to review involves Sergeant Patrick Gonzales, a veteran SWAT cop who is responsible for four shootings and has become a lightning rod for critics of OPD.
US District Judge Thelton Henderson appointed Frazier to oversee the police department in March. The appointment followed Frazier's searing review of OPD's response to Occupy Oakland last year. The position of compliance director was created as a compromise between the city and attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin, after Burris and Chanin, who are overseeing the lawsuit at the core of OPD's federal oversight, filed a motion late last year to put the entire department under full court control.
The first two months of Frazier's term in Oakland have been marked by tensions between the former police chief and Oakland officials, most notably City Administrator Deanna Santana, who unsuccessfully attempted to alter Frazier's Occupy Oakland report last year (see "Deanna Santana Tried to Alter Damning Report," 9/19/12). The haggling over Frazier's salary and powers got so intense that Henderson issued an order on April 10, stating that Oakland officials were "attempting to limit unilaterally the scope of the compliance director's authority" and granting Frazier broad authority to carry out reforms.
Frazier's displeasure with OPD's investigations of officer misconduct have persisted since his June 2012 report on Occupy Oakland, which criticized the department's criminal and administrative probes of the violent incident involving US Marine Corps veteran Scott Olsen, who was severely injured by police. Frazier concluded that OPD's investigation of the Olsen case was incomplete, compromised, and in need of reinvestigation (see, "Damning Report of OPD," 6/20/12).
"The Department historically has not consistently held members accountable for their actions, both in terms of effective disciplinary investigation, proper finding, and appropriate discipline," Frazier stated in his action plan last week. "Several cases are being reviewed by the Office of the Compliance Director at this time, and appropriate findings and recommendations are forthcoming."
Frazier's authority to address individual officer misconduct stems from Judge Henderson's December 2012 order outlining the role of the compliance director, a position that is designed to ensure that the department finally institutes all the reforms mandated in the 2003 federal consent decree, also known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA). The compliance director, Henderson wrote, "will have the power to review, investigate, and take corrective action regarding OPD policies, procedures, and practices that are related to the objectives of the NSA ... even if such policies, procedures, or practices do not fall squarely within any specific NSA task."
Before approving the compliance director position, Judge Henderson delegated himself authority to hold officers and commanders who hindered or violated the NSA reforms in contempt of court. While no contempt proceedings were ever held against individual officers, Frazier's announcement of his intentions to independently revisit allegations against officers could result in court sanctions against problem cops. "It's clear that he's been given wide-ranging authority by the judge," Chanin said. "I do believe it is appropriate for him to look into complaints in disciplining supervisors and their higher-ups."
Furthermore, Frazier and his staff will also reexamine incidents in which officers failed to report misconduct. That's another key component of the NSA that is devised to break through the "thin blue line" culture of silence that allowed The Riders — a group of rogue cops whose actions resulted in the consent decree — to operate for so long. "The Office of the Compliance Director will identify and review individual Failure to Report specific misconduct cases, and their associated findings and disciplinary recommendations," Frazier wrote in his action plan. "This is particularly true in the case of Supervisors and Command level personnel."
Getting officers to come forward and report on the misdeeds of their colleagues has been a serious challenge, Chanin said. Within OPD, "there's a culture there where, for want of a better expression, 'snitches lie in ditches,'" Chanin added. He pointed to the example of Keith Batt, the rookie cop who blew the whistle on his field-training officer, Frank Vazquez, and the three other officers who made up The Riders. Batt was forced to leave OPD after he came forward. Later, he established himself as a decorated detective with the Pleasanton Police Department.
Multiple sources say one of the incidents that Frazier intends to investigate further is the beating of US Army veteran Kayvan Sabeghi by former OPD officer Frank Uu on the night of November 2, 2011 (see "Cop Identified in Kayvan Sabeghi Beating?," 4/11/12). Video of the incident showed Uu breaking ranks with other officers and repeatedly striking Sabeghi with his baton. Sabeghi's spleen ruptured from the beating and he was hospitalized as a result. The Army veteran has filed a civil rights lawsuit against OPD, which names Uu, police union Vice President Marcel Patterson, and Sergeant Gonzales, who was Uu's supervisor that night.
I've learned that complaints against Gonzales for failing to properly supervise Uu, report his alleged misconduct, or investigate the incident were made to internal affairs and the Oakland Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB), which conducts independent investigations into police misconduct, but does not have the power to enforce its disciplinary recommendations. The CPRB sustained the allegations against Gonzales and recommended that internal affairs sustain the complaint as well. However, internal affairs chose not to do so, and Santana decided to effectively ignore the CPRB's findings against Gonzales, sources said. According to the city ordinance governing the CPRB's function, the city administrator has the final say over the disposition of CPRB investigations. Gonzales currently is a robbery and assault investigator in OPD's Criminal Investigations Division.
Santana's decision to effectively ignore CPRB's rare sustained finding of misconduct (the CPRB sustains less than 10 percent of all misconduct complaints it investigates) against Gonzales sent an alarming message to OPD's rank and file, according to professor Sam Walker, a University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist who is a nationally recognized expert on police accountability. "That decision undermines the core message of the NSA," Walker said. "It says, 'We're not serious about doing this.'"
In an email, city spokeswoman Karen Boyd declined to comment specifically on Gonzales' case. But Boyd maintained that Santana "decided to implement" CPRB's staff recommendations "with modifications" and issued a policy advisory on OPD supervisors' responsibility to report misconduct.
However, Walker said that by drawing a line in the sand on poor investigations and exerting his court-delegated authority to reopen closed misconduct allegations, Frazier has sent a very clear message to OPD and city authorities. "Reinvestigating individual misconduct cases is unprecedented," Walker said. "Frazier is really assuming responsibility for taking charge of the reforms."