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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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Henry Gage said the commission has struggled in part because of a lack of support from the city administration. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • Henry Gage said the commission has struggled in part because of a lack of support from the city administration.

But it was alternate commissioner Dooley's resignation that laid bare the problems the commission has faced and will continue to grapple with. "There have been administrative delays, political objections, a failure to create needed relationships, and a lack of resources promised by Measure LL," Dooley wrote in her letter of resignation. She directed most fault at some of her fellow commissioners.

"Some [c]ommissioners lack an understanding of Measure LL and its core mission and have focused too much attention and energy on ancillary matters and personality conflicts," Dooley wrote. "The [c]ommission could easily have been successful without promised resources if all of the [c]ommissioners had understood what police accountability is and worked in partnership with city leadership to enact the measure."

Asked how she would describe the commission's performance so far, Commissioner Benson said, "We have squandered a year of governance. We have to get ourselves back on track."

She said the commission needs to revisit questions about how it operates internally with a focus on meetings that are less hierarchical and can attract more participation from the community.

Henry Gage, who is possibly the closest observer of the commission, agrees. He said the commission's biggest problem isn't the neglect and opposition other city officials have demonstrated, but rather internal organizational dysfunction.

"The commission just needs to do things," Gage said. "In an ideal world, you'd have a city administration that's creating the scaffolding to get them up and running. But they weren't exactly being set up for success."

Gage said that moving forward, it's imperative for the commission to focus its energy and rely on itself to organize its workload and exert its rightful authority. Doing so means completing trainings and setting up the structures that future commissioners will rely on to fulfil their mandate.

Dooley, who had been the harshest internal critic of the commission, still strikes an optimistic tone. But she said the conflicts between the city administrator, city attorney, and commission need to be addressed if this year is to see any progress.

"I really think they can do this," she said. "The mayor, administrator, and commissioners should all sit down and say, 'How can we make this work?' They need to hammer out who is responsible for what and what needs to be fixed."

Still, Dooley sees conflicts that may need to ultimately be addressed through changes to the city charter to remove all ambiguity in terms of who controls the commission's staff.

Kalb agrees on that point. He said a ballot measure in 2020 to clean up Measure LL and determine once and for all who hires and supervises staff, and what information the commissioners can access, is probably needed.

It may have been difficult this year for the commission to focus because of the multitude of distractions they've faced, Kalb said. Crises like ICE raids, officer-involved shootings, and an endless chorus of criticism at their meetings have made it hard for them to envision the bigger picture of what they're supposed to build.

But this crop of police commissioners aren't just police commissioners, they're the first police commissioners. They bear a burden of having to create the structures under which all future commissioners will work.


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