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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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"If you are asking for information that's in the report that refers to ongoing tasks, that would be considered by the city to be confidential," Dibley said. Dibley was referring to the 52 tasks the NSA requires of OPD in order to come into compliance with constitutional policing standards. The NSA's 52 different tasks touch on virtually every aspect of the department, and the ongoing or open tasks that OPD has yet to comply with include several areas that Measure LL gives the police commission specific and far-reaching authority to review and even propose policy changes for. According to Measure LL, the commission has the power to shape any policy that "contains elements expressly listed in federal court orders or federal court settlements which pertain to the [d]epartment."

Larry White, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, told the commissioners right after the city attorney shut down the discussion, "Ms. Dibley has said that in the NSA, there are matters that are pending that are confidential, but that's what you need to be dealing with, the matters that are pending in the settlement agreement. If you can't talk about those, your work here ... you might as well go home."

That wasn't the last time police officials and the city attorney told the commissioners they couldn't share information with them because of the NSA. But the commission's difficulty in receiving NSA information from the police department is actually a minor problem compared to another issue that came up at the commission's Oct. 11 meeting.

CPRA Director Anthony Finnell presented three investigations to the commission that he was recommending be closed. One of the cases was described as involving police "use of physical force" and another involved an officer "driving under the influence."

Finnell recommended closing both cases with no discipline meted out because the use of force was considered proper and the officer who was driving drunk quit OPD.

The third case was cryptically described with only one word, "truthfulness." But it was apparent that the case involved a complaint made against Chief Kirkpatrick by Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission, regarding false statements the chief made about an ICE raid in August of 2017 in which OPD assisted. Finnell exonerated Kirkpatrick.

Commissioner Dooley immediately questioned Finnell as to why it took one year to complete the investigation, leaving no statutory room for the commissioners to review the case to determine if they agreed in closing it.

And Commissioner Harris interjected with an even more pointed statement. "This information is useless," she bluntly told Finnell. "Useless. Useless."

The commissioners then demanded to know why Finnell had left out even a summary explanation of why his investigators came to the conclusions they did. Finnell's response caused several jaws to drop.

Finnell told the commissioners that according to Measure LL, the commissioners can never see detailed information about an investigation that the CPRA conducts — unless CPRA investigators come to a different conclusion about a case than those of OPD's internal affairs team and the police chief. In that situation, the case goes to the discipline subcommittee of the police commission for a hearing.

"What precludes us from having closed session and reviewing the reports?" asked commissioner Dooley in response.

"You only see personnel records when there's a disagreement between the chief and the agency," responded Meredith Brown, the commission's legal counsel who was appointed by City Attorney Parker.

After that meeting, Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability called the commission a "boondoggle."

"It never occurred to me that the police commissioners would have less power than their predecessors," she said, referring to the old CPRB, which was allowed to look at the case files prepared by their investigators in closed-session meetings.

"It wasn't my intention to give commissioners less authority, less ability to review documents than what the old CPRB had," Councilmember Kalb said in a recent interview.

Commissioner Benson said this surprise weakening of the commission's access to investigative files might have been an unintended consequence of the chaotic rush to draft and negotiate Measure LL and that no one ever raised the issue. "CPRB used to see all these files, so the assumption was that we wouldn't be giving up that same power."

As of now, however, the commission has been stripped of this power.

It's unclear if Finnell's refusal to provide the commission with more details about cases played a role in his termination, but on Nov. 8, the commissioners voted in closed session to fire him. Reached by phone the next day, Finnell declined to comment.

But records indicate that there could have been other reasons Finnell was fired. As far back as February of last year, commission Chair Smith, Vice Chair Harris, and Commissioner Nisperos drafted a "letter of reprimand" to Finnell, according to commission records released under the Public Records Act.

Finnell's firing was just one of the departures of key personnel that's impacted the commission in its first year. Attorney Brown resigned in October, for reasons that are also unclear. Commissioner Nisperos, who was by far the most qualified and experienced on the commission — a lawyer who served as a deputy district attorney and manager of the old Oakland Citizen's Police Review Board, among many other roles — quit the commission in October, citing his decision to move to Vallejo.


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