Proposed OPD Settlement Doesn’t Go Far Enough



The proposed settlement agreement that would spare the Oakland Police Department from federal receivership, while forcing the City of Oakland to hire a court-appointed overseer represents an improvement over the current management structure at OPD, but it does not go far enough. The reason is that the proposed settlement between civil rights attorneys and the city may not be able to fix the deep dysfunction within OPD.

In September, the Express published a 4,900-word cover story, “The People’s Police Department,” by freelance journalist Joaquin Palomino. It was one of the most important stories in the paper this year, and it detailed both the remarkable similarities and vast differences between the Detroit and Oakland police departments:

Detroit and Oakland are the only two cities in the nation operating under federal consent decrees that stemmed from serious police misconduct. The Detroit and Oakland police departments also are being monitored by the same independent court-appointed team led by Robert Warshaw, former police chief of Rochester, New York. Detroit and Oakland also have both endured serious budget shortfalls as a result of the Great Recession and have been forced to lay off police officers. Detroit and Oakland also are two of the most dangerous cities in the nation (although Detroit is worse). And historically, the Detroit and Oakland police departments have had troubled relationships with minority communities in their cities.

But since 2009, Detroit has made tremendous progress in meeting its two consent decrees, while Oakland has stagnated on its single decree. The reason? Detroit got a new police chief, Ralph Godbee Jr., who fully embraced the reforms mandated by the decrees. Godbee did not view the Detroit reforms, which are very similar to the ones required in Oakland, as some sort of hindrance to his department. Instead, he viewed them as “best practices” policing, as the surest way to turn Detroit into a more effective police department — one that solves crime and is trusted and embraced by its community.

Godbee, in short, completely changed the culture of Detroit PD. Detroit cops are now much less likely to stop people because of the color of their skin. They’re now much less likely to point their guns at minority suspects and witnesses. They’re now much less likely to abuse minority suspects and/or kill them. They’re now much less likely to beat up protesters. In short, Detroit PD increasingly treats all residents with respect, and over the past two years, complaints of police misconduct have plummeted by 41 percent.

The new attitude in Detroit PD also is fostering new relationships with the community. City residents, especially in low-income areas, are increasingly cooperating with police, helping them solve crimes, and keeping watch in their neighborhoods. Detroit PD now also conducts regular public meetings in which police commanders and officers must publicly explain not only their conduct, but also why crime is up or down in certain areas. The meetings “are showing [officers] how and why these reforms work, that they are actually improving their image in the city, which improves their ability to interact with citizens,” said Eric Lambert, a professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University. “And everyone knows that the best crime control is when citizens are involved and they become the ears and eyes of the police department.”

Unfortunately, since the city agreed to its consent decree following The Riders scandal, Oakland has had four police chiefs who have mostly treated the reforms as roadblocks to policing. They’ve complained that the reforms have forced them to assign too many cops to internal affairs. They’ve complained that the reforms force officers to fill out too much paperwork. They’ve argued that they can’t solve crimes and lower the city’s crime rate because they say they spend too much time trying to live up to the reforms.

And their distaste for the reforms permeates throughout the command staff and the rest of department. It’s not surprising, then, that rank-and-file cops hate the reforms too, and resist them. It’s also not surprising that the reforms are not being implemented, and that citizen complaints against OPD for misconduct are higher than ever.

It should be noted that Oakland has also suffered from a lack of political leadership over the past decade. Mayor Jerry Brown instituted the “get-tough-on-crime” mindset that led to The Riders scandal, and then ignored the federal reforms until late in his tenure when it became clear that he was going to run for attorney general. Mayor Ron Dellums was not much better. And Mayor Jean Quan has failed to make much progress during her two years in office.

By contrast, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has been a full-throated cheerleader for the reforms in his city over the past few years, and fully supported Godbee’s efforts, while instituting some of this own, including a program for cops to buy foreclosed homes and live in the City of Detroit. It should be noted, however, that Godbee wasn't a perfect chief. He retired in October after having an affair with a subordinate.

Regardless, not only has Oakland lacked the necessary leadership, but the reform efforts here also have been made much harder to implement here because of a group of journalists, pundits, community leaders, and politicians who view the consent decree as being “too liberal” and “too soft on crime.” Many of these folks appear to subscribe to the Dirty Harry-style of policing, and act as if the only way to solve Oakland’s crime problems is “to bust some heads.” This group also provides political cover for police chiefs and cops who share the same attitude.

Although current Police Chief Howard Jordan has been better than his predecessor, Anthony Batts, in focusing on the reforms, that’s not saying much. Jordan also has been better than Richard Word, who served under Brown and did virtually nothing. Jordan, however, has not been as effective with the reforms as Wayne Tucker, who served under both Brown and Dellums (although Tucker had other problems).

The poor track record of Oakland’s police chiefs over the past decade, coupled with the lack of political leadership, also is why the proposed settlement is flawed. If OPD is ever going to fully enact the reforms and become an effective police agency that has the respect and cooperation of the community, it’s going have to hire a chief who views the reforms as a blueprint for creating a better police force, a chief who sees the consent decree not as something that the department has to do, but as something that the department should do.

Jordan has had a good career in OPD, is a good cop, and is a good guy. But he’s also a product of a deeply dysfunctional system, and it doesn’t seem likely that he suddenly is going to become a charismatic change-agent — a leader who will publicly advocate and institute the reforms that OPD so desperately needs. Moreover, it doesn’t seem as if Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana are any more interested in hiring such a chief than their predecessors were. They also have been reticent to publicly embrace the reforms and talk about them as the real solution to OPD’s problems.

Case in point: their insistence that the new court-appointed official who would oversee OPD’s reform efforts be called “the compliance director” and not a “federal receiver.” We understand the political and image reasons for not wanting OPD to become the first department in nation to be put in federal receivership, but does “compliance director” sound like a job position that would change OPD’s deeply dysfunctional culture? Or does it sound like a person whose job is to make sure that the department checks off all the right boxes?

Moreover, the proposed settlement is flawed because the new “compliance director” would not have the unfettered ability to replace Jordan if he or she wanted to. The compliance director would have the ability to recommend to Judge Thelton Henderson that the police chief be removed, but would have no power to select his replacement. Instead, the authority to hire a new police chief would remain solely with Quan and Santana. Based on what has transpired over the past year, that’s a mistake, a flaw that threatens OPD’s ability to finally live up to the reforms.

Finally, while I have much respect for plaintiffs’ attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris, I strongly disagree with their assertion that the compliance director is no different than a receiver, other than the job title. A true receiver would have the power to not only fire the police chief, but also to hire a new one — and a new command staff, if need be. But the compliance director as outlined in the proposed settlement doesn’t have that authority.

Note: This post was updated to reflect the fact that Godbee retired in October -- after our original story on Detroit PD was published.