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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?



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Rashida Grinage remains optimistic about the commission. - FILE PHOTO BY STEPHEN TEXEIRA
  • File photo by Stephen Texeira
  • Rashida Grinage remains optimistic about the commission.

"There's every reason to be doom and gloom about this first year," Grinage said. "But I personally don't want to contribute to the negativity. The worst is behind them, and it can only get better from here."

But that might not be true. The worst of it might still be ahead. There are major conflicts between the commission and other city officials that have only started to manifest. And it's almost assured that 2019 will be another tumultuous year for the commission, regardless of whether its members can carve out more resources from the city administration and organize themselves more effectively.

At the police commission's first meeting on Dec. 13, 2017, commissioners and activists complained that the commission hadn't been provided adequate staff and other resources. They faulted Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, accusing her and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf of neglecting the commission. Some activists even believe the mayor and city administration are trying to sabotage the commission. The perception that Landreth, in particular, is hostile to the commission has only grown over time.

Landreth and her spokesperson Karen Boyd didn't respond to a request to be interviewed for this report. Landreth also has never made a public statement in support of the police commission. On the contrary, at a city council meeting last year, she spoke critically of the commission and criticized a vote by the city council that sought to empower the commissioners and increase their independence from her office.

Schaaf, on the other hand, has publicly praised the commission, and she appeared at one commission meeting this past year. However, Schaaf's spokesperson Justin Berton said the mayor wasn't available to be interviewed for this report.

Last week, Schaaf and Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said during a press conference that their primary public safety objective is reducing crime. When asked by an East Bay Times reporter if complying with the NSA is equally a priority, they responded, "Yes." But then Kirkpatrick reiterated that when Schaaf hired her two years ago, it was because Kirkpatrick "had one goal: to reduce crime and violence."

Henry Gage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability who has attended almost every commission meeting, told the Express, "We met with the mayor a while back to see where she was at in terms of her support for the commission. I was surprised by how little attention she was paying."

Gage said Schaaf seemed unaware of the problems the commission has faced, including the perceived neglect from Landreth's office. "It's concerning," Gage said, "because back in 2016, Schaaf was talking about rooting out corruption and this macho toxic culture [in OPD], so you'd think she'd still be spending more time on that."

While the city council approved a $2.3 million budget for the commission's first year, including a staff of seven investigators, the chief investigator, a policy analyst, and five office staff, most of these positions were transferred over from the old Citizen's Police Review Board. To fill two empty administrative roles that were key to getting the commission up and running, Landreth appointed a part-time staffer from her office.

Stephanie Hom, the Landreth staffer filling this role, said during the commission's first meeting that new staff hadn't been hired for the commission because the city's hiring process is slow.

At subsequent meetings, Hom and the commissioners clashed over how to best fill the commission's most important staff position. The commissioners requested that recruitment for the executive director of the new Community Police Review Agency (CPRA) — essentially the commission's lead police misconduct investigator — be expedited. Hom agreed to quicken the process, but then told the commissioners it would take time to hire someone and added that the job wouldn't be posted anywhere publicly. When asked by commissioners if they could directly advertise the job and receive queries from interested parties, Hom told them "I can't answer that question."

The job was eventually posted, but it remains unfilled while a CPRA investigator is serving as the interim director.

Of greater concern than staffing issues to the commissioners, however, was the commission's launch without any orientation or trainings. The council appropriated $293,533 for trainings and other startup support, but as 2018 came and went, the commissioners received few relevant trainings. In fact, they were never provided with any kind of orientation prior to their first meeting.

"We needed resources for our ramp up," said police Commissioner Maureen Benson in a recent interview. "We needed immense amounts of training those first few months. A lot of this still hasn't been done. There were processes that could have been put in place to help us map out a work plan."

Andrea Dooley, an alternate commissioner who resigned in November, said, "Once we were selected, months passed and we didn't get any support or training. We were never introduced to the city attorney or administration. We were selected, sworn in, given the commissioner's handbook by the city clerk, and then it was just like, 'show up for your first meeting.'"

The commission's lack of training and the inexperience of most of the new commissioners with how to conduct a public meeting quickly became obvious. Benson said that because the commissioners hadn't been provided a retreat or other venue to talk about various ways they could organize the commission and run its meetings, it unfortunately fell into what she called a "hierarchical government model."


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