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Measure to Reform Oakland Police Commission in the Works

Charter amendment proposed by City Council President Rebecca Kaplan would make body more independent of mayor and city administrator.

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After years of advocacy for independent police oversight in Oakland, residents overwhelmingly voted for the creation of a civilian police commission by passing Measure LL in 2016. In the intervening years, however, supporters of the robust oversight seemingly promised by that measure have described its promise of reforming Oakland's consistently troubled police department as unfulfilled. Now, a charter amendment that hopes to amend some of Measure LL's perceived weaknesses could come before Oakland voters sometime next year.

Last week before the Public Safety Committee, Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan unveiled a list of reforms that would revisit several of the unresolved conflicts at the heart of that 2016 measure. Kaplan's proposal would insert language in the City Charter granting the police commission and not the mayor the power to select its own inspector general. It also would strip the mayor's power to appoint some of the seven regular and two alternate commissioners, instead handing that authority to a community-based selection panel. Advocates of Measure LL believe the mayor's ability to appoint three members constitutes a conflict of interest. In Oakland, the police chief answers to the mayor's office.

Kaplan also wants language in the charter to prohibit an Oakland city administrator from concurrently serving as chief of police. That unpredictable occurrence was the end result of tumultuous few weeks in 2016 when Oakland went through three police chiefs in eight days. Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth subsequently wore both hats for roughly six months until the hiring of current Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick in January 2017. Critics complained that the arrangement was illegal and eliminated one layer of civilian accountability over the department.

Other proposed additions include giving the commission the power to hire its own independent legal counsel. The new measure also would clarify that any complaints leveled against members of the commission itself would go directly to the City Council, and could not be investigated by the city administration. In addition, police commissioners would be given racial-bias training.

Alluding to the political gamesmanship that she believes has followed passage of Measure LL, Kaplan said the intent of the proposed ballot measure is to be "explicit in the law so there would be no gray area to argue over in terms of whether the law already authorizes that." Kaplan said she does not agree with the city's interpretation of Measure LL, but said it doesn't matter. "Given that has been such a fight, we're proposing to make that completely clear so there is no debate going forward."

Mayoral spokesman Justin Berton said Mayor Libby Schaaf supports allowing the commission to hire its own staff and legal counsel, but would await comment on the entire proposal until seeing the final version.

Sixteen years after OPD was placed on federal oversight in response to the illegal actions of a rogue team of officer known as "the Riders," police-reform advocates know that coaxing public support for the proposed charter amendment is predicated on pivoting off the Oakland Police Department's penchant for getting itself into high-profile controversies. Back in 2016, more than 83 percent of Oakland voters supported creation of a civilian police commission by voting for Measure LL. The election came as the public was just grasping the extent of the OPD's horrific involvement in the case of a then-16-year-old girl who was sexually abused by multiple officers in Oakland, and also Richmond.

The death last year of Joshua Pawlik, a homeless man shot and killed by Oakland police, and questions about the perceived lenient punishment of the officers involved in that incident could be fodder for a charter amendment campaign. The Oakland Police Commission and the federal monitor recommended that all five officers involved in the Pawlik shooting be terminated. The department, however, initially exonerated the officers, before eventually firing them. The officers subsequently sued the city and the police commission seeking to get their jobs back.

Kaplan hopes the charter amendment can be placed on the ballot in time for the March 2020 primary. However, a representative of the city attorney's office told committee members last week that the amendment might have to wait until the November 2020 general election. The state's election code considers primaries to be "special elections," and suggests that charter amendments like the one proposed by Kaplan should appear on the ballot of a "general election," the next of which is scheduled for November 2020. According to the code, only measures that propose to "amend a charter in a manner that does not alter any procedural or substantive protection, right, benefit, or employment status of any local government employment or retiree or local government employee organization" may be voted upon during a special election. A representative from the city attorney's office declined to publicly offer an opinion on whether Kaplan's proposed charter amendment meets any parameters within the exemption.

To meet the March deadline, Kaplan would need to steer the proposal through the legislative process in quick order. The latest date that the City Council could vote to place it on the March ballot is at its Nov. 19 meeting, the final one scheduled before the Dec. 6 primary deadline. "If it does have to be November, don't feel that's a failure," Kaplan said. "We're going to work for an effective measure, either way."

Cat Brooks, a member of the Anti-Police Terror Project and failed 2018 mayoral candidate, said the November 2020 ballot is the optimal time frame for the charter amendment. "We need more time to organize truly impacted people around this issue." She said people are going to think, "Well, we dealt with that already. Why do we need to change anything?'"

Yet for other advocates of the proposed measure, the intervention of the city attorney's office into the discussion has rekindled fears that it seeks to obstruct or bog down the legislative process. Rashida Grinage, a long-time critic of OPD, considers the office's questions about the election date a replay of past actions that she views as having stifled the commission.

"At the eleventh hour, the city attorney discovers something in the election code previously unknown to anyone," Grinage griped last week to the Public Safety Committee. "Why? So that the commission can stagger for 15 more months without staff and independent counsel? So the commissioners can continue to be frustrated, obstructed, give up, resign? So the commission can collapse? Hold the line. Don't fall for okie-doke from the city attorney."

Larry White, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, which is working with Kaplan on the proposed charter amendment, went further than Grinage, essentially accusing City Attorney Barbara Parker of intending to stifle the commission. "There is a necessity for change," White said. "And there are people in this city administration who don't want change. The city attorney is one of those people. She will do anything she can to stop any real reform and to stop an independent police commission from have any power."

Parker's Chief of Staff Alex Katz objected strenuously to White's comments, noting that she was instrumental in helping the council draft the Police Commission charter amendment and get it on the ballot. "Parker has been advocate for police reform for decades in Oakland," Katz said.

Meanwhile, the back and forth regarding a 2018 parcel tax has given some voters a sense of skepticism regarding the validity of ballot measures in Oakland. Despite failing to receive the two-thirds majority of support that everyone believed was necessary for passage, the mayor and council later argued that the measure was successful anyway, due to a subsequent legal interpretation adopted by the city. Although the city's interpretation was recently rejected by a judge, recent polling regarding a potential 2020 parcel tax to fund parks maintenance documented voter mistrust toward ballot measures due to the perception that the city was attempting to pull a fast one on the voters. 

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