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Oakland's Lost Year of Police Accountability

In 2018, The Town's new police commission stumbled badly in a power struggle with other city officials, and itself. Can it recover?



  • Photo and design by Paul Haggard

Later this month, Oakland will mark an unfortunate anniversary when its police department enters its 17th year under the oversight of a federal judge. Called the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, or NSA, the sweeping court oversight program was the outcome of a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2000 that exposed racial profiling and brutality committed by a squad of Oakland cops known as "The Riders."

Originally, the NSA was only supposed to last five years. Once OPD completed a list of mandatory reforms, a federal judge would hand control over the police department back to the city. But OPD has repeatedly failed to complete the NSA's requirements, as new police scandals have burst into the headlines and the city has rotated through four mayors, eight city administrators, and seven police chiefs.

The cascade of scandals included the callous and fatal beating of Jerry Amaro by several narcotics officers in 2000. As if to underscore OPD's inability to hold its own accountable, the Amaro case was covered up by a lieutenant who, by 2010, was promoted to captain of internal affairs.

In 2003, a deployment of officers battered protesters and longshore workers at the Port of Oakland during an antiwar protest, leading to another civil rights lawsuit and imposition of new "crowd control" policies.

In 2009, 11 officers were accused of falsifying information on search warrant applications. The warrants scandal resulted in yet another costly lawsuit as well as the dismissal of dozens of tainted criminal cases.

In 2011, a heavily armed deployment of Oakland cops again attacked protesters during Occupy, including the wounding of Iraq War vet Scott Olsen, who was shot in the head by an OPD officer with a beanbag shotgun round while another officer lobbed a flash-bang grenade at a group helping Olsen.

While these and other scandals periodically erupted, controversial and fatal police shootings continued. In most cases, officers gunned down young Black men, a few of whom — like Derrick Jones and Mack "Jody" Woodfox — were unarmed.

Then there was the 2016 "Celeste Guap" sex exploitation scandal. The attempted cover-up caused Thelton Henderson, the federal judge overseeing the NSA at the time, to remark in an order that the department's behavior called into question its ability to comply with the NSA.

But the sex exploitation scandal pushed Oakland's elected officials to embrace something they'd previously resisted: an independent police commission. In 2016, the city council, in an effort led by Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Noel Gallo, voted to put a measure on the November ballot to establish the commission. Voters seized on the idea as a way to finally create an accountability mechanism for the long-term — after mayors, administrators, and police chiefs come and go, and after the NSA ends. Indeed, the commission was sold as an institutional force that could help OPD reach compliance with the NSA. Voters gave the new commission, which has the power to investigate misconduct and shape department policies, a stunning mandate with a vote of 83 percent.

Yet despite this overwhelming support, this past year, the commission's inaugural, was marked by confusion and conflict.

Already, two of the best-qualified commissioners have resigned, one of them in frustration. In November, the commission suddenly and secretively fired its chief investigator after publicly clashing with him. Commissioners have also quarreled during public meetings with their legal counsel, and their first attorney quit after commissioners argued with her at meetings. The commissioners have also bickered amongst themselves, sometimes over email and text message, sometimes in public. And lacking experience with state open meetings laws, at least one of the commissioners committed a Brown Act violation in the form of unnoticed emails sent to a quorum of other commissioners.

Over the past year, the commission hasn't made progress on the core work required of it under the city charter. They've yet to hold a single hearing in a police disciplinary case or participate in an OPD Executive Force Review Board to examine a shooting or similar critical incident. They're ill-prepared to draft their evaluation of the police chief. They've yet to hold a community meeting.

Now, there's even controversy over whether the police commissioners are allowed to view the contents of the police misconduct files prepared by their own investigators.

They've also yet to successfully draft a single policy for OPD. They lack an inspector general, a key staff position under the commission's supervision that is similar to an auditor. The inspector general has the authority to review OPD's existing policies and procedures and recommend improvement, but the job hasn't even been posted yet on the city's hiring website.

In sum, the commission is a mess. But the commission's supporters are by no means ready to call it a failure. Quite the opposite.

"It's not a shocker that a commission of this high profile will have some bumps along the way," Kalb said in a recent interview. "I remain very hopeful."

Kalb said the commission will eventually fulfill its mission as a powerful institution. But he added that the city council likely will need to consider some modifications to and clarifications of the commission's authority in 2020 when another ballot measure can be put before voters.

Rashidah Grinage, one of the police accountability activists who was a driving force in the creation of the commission, is also hopeful, despite being one of the commission's harshest critics in 2018.