Judge Henderson Considers Sanctions Against Oakland Police



On January 9, Judge Thelton Henderson heard a motion brought by Riders' plaintiffs attorneys John Burris and James Chanin that sought federal sanctions for officers who had covered their name plates during Occupy Oakland eviction actions by the Oakland Police Department. City attorneys argued that this was an isolated incident that did not represent a systematic violation of policy and that the officers' superiors acted swiftly to investigate fully.

City attorneys also argued that it would be improper for the federal court to intervene in this instance since discipline had already been ordered for the two officers. The city further argued that it would set a bad precedent if every time an officer violated a general order, the court stepped in. Representing the City Attorneys Office, Randolph Hall insisted that the court should get involved only if there is a systematic abuse, rather than acting in a 'piece meal approach.'

Judge Henderson then interrupted, saying, "Maybe we need to go in a piece meal approach," because, even though he had the attention of the OPD command staff, he still had not necessarily got the attention of the rank and file officers who continue to violate the settlement agreement provisions and policies. To that, the officers' attorney replied that the motivation of the officers who had covered their name plates was not to violate the court's order but rather to protect their families, since other officers who had been video taped with their names appearing had been victimized and harassed by protesters.

Judge Henderson did not seem persuaded, noting that the federal court monitors had characterized the Oakland Police Department as being "behind other departments in matters like this and no one seems to care." He went on to remark that he wanted officers to think, "This judge is crazy and just wants to come after me."

At that point plaintiffs' attorney John Burris pointed out that even though the city had decided to impose discipline, there were still several appeals available to the officers and that, often in such cases, arbitrators rule in favor of officers. He cited the case of Officer Jiminez who, after killing Jody Woodfox, had been terminated by the city but managed to get reinstated by the Civil Service Board. Burris maintained that violations of policy by these officers was 'deliberate and conscious' and that 'someting has to be done.'

He likened miscreant officers to wildcat action, believing they could do whatever they wanted with impunity. Both Burris and Chanin pointed out that previous comments by the judge had invited a motion for sanctions when there was intent on the part of officers to 'undermine' the settlement agreement and the court's orders.

At the end of the hour-long hearing, Judge Henderson stated that he would take all of the arguments under submission and issue a written order. There is also a regularly scheduled quarterly status hearing scheduled in Judge Henderson's court room on January 26.

Rashida Grinage is the executive director of PUEBLO, an Oakland police watchdog group. This post is reprinted with PUEBLO's permission.