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Why Oakland Can't Fire Bad Cops

Interviews and records raise questions about biased investigations into police misconduct and the competence of attorneys representing the city.

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On the evening October 25, 2011, Roche was a member of one of the two "Tango Teams" assigned to hold Frank Ogawa Plaza and repel Occupy Oakland protesters whom police had ousted from their encampment in front of City Hall early that morning. Around 7:45 p.m. that day, on the orders of then-Captain Paul Figueroa, the two Tango Teams unleashed several volleys of tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and less-than-lethal projectiles onto a crowd of more than one thousand protesters at 14th Street and Broadway. Olsen, who was standing with his Veterans for Peace colleague Joshua Shepard about ten feet from the police barricade on 14th, was turning to flee as he was shot in the left side of his head by a less-than-lethal projectile that a subsequent investigation determined was fired by an Oakland police officer. OPD's Tango Teams had been ordered to fire less-than-lethal rounds at anyone who threw tear gas canisters back at police — although Olsen had never done so.

As Olsen lay on the ground in front of the police line, a crowd of demonstrators rushed to his aid. At the time, Roche was standing at the line training his shotgun back and forth across the crowd. Video of the incident showed the acting sergeant step back from the line, lower his gun, and toss a tear-gas-filled flash-bang grenade into the crowd. The grenade exploded near Olsen's body.

After an independent review of OPD's conduct during Occupy Oakland found the department's criminal investigators — namely, Jim Rullamas — had prematurely closed the criminal probe of the Olsen shooting, the city appointed an independent investigator to review the case. The department sent a termination letter to Roche in the fall of 2012.

According to sources, Roche was initially terminated for lying to investigators about his actions during the demonstration, for tossing the flash-bang onto Olsen and his rescuers, and for allegedly firing the projectile that wounded Olsen (however, a subsequent police investigation indicated that another officer was likely responsible for wounding Olsen). During a department disciplinary proceeding known as a Skelly hearing, after Roche had received his termination letter, it was determined that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the findings that Roche had lied to investigators and had shot Olsen with a beanbag. However, Police Chief Whent decided to fire Roche for tossing the tear-gas-filled flash-bang grenade.

On July 30 of this year, labor arbitrator David Stiteler overturned the termination of Roche on the grounds that Roche had been ordered to toss the tear gas at Olsen by Figueroa, who was in charge of the operation (Figueroa is now an assistant chief). Roche's attorney, Justin Buffington, also said Stiteler concluded that Roche was telling the truth when he said he was unaware that Olsen was lying prostrate and injured on the ground fifteen feet away, in his direct line of sight.

Many OPD officers viewed Stiteler's ruling as vindication of their long-held belief that rank-and-file cops are unfairly punished, while command staffers manage to escape discipline. "Roche is a phenomenal police officer, and he was scapegoated like all the other officers from the Occupy experience," said Sergeant Barry Donelan, the president of the Oakland Police Officers' Association, to the Oakland Tribune. (Donelan did not respond to interview requests for this report.)

A review of social media activity involving OPD officers also reveals that some of them maintained close friendships with Robert Roche. And among his friends was a criminal investigator assigned to look into the Olsen incident. In one Facebook post after the arbitrator's ruling, that officer — Sergeant Rachael Van Sloten — changed her profile picture to a photo collage titled "Well Deserved Victory." The collage included a picture of Saint Patrick, an Irish Catholic saint, with an image of Roche's face superimposed over Patrick's, and Patrick's name replaced with "Rob." The saint is dressed in robes embroidered with crucifixes. The collage also included a photo of police officers, including some of Roche's Tango Team buddies, having a celebratory drink at the Warehouse, a longtime cop bar in the city's Jack London district.

Van Sloten posted often on Roche's Facebook page. In one post from November 2013, after Roche had been fired, Roche lamented about the long day he had spent at the federal courthouse testifying in the Olsen civil case. Roche noted in comments on the post that he was drinking a shot of Jameson's Irish whiskey after court. Van Sloten then commented, "I'll join you in that drink when I'm done with my upcoming stint in Federal Court." (It's not clear whether Van Sloten was testifying in the same case.)

Van Sloten's relationship with Roche and her Facebook celebration after the arbitrator's ruling in his favor raises serious questions about the neutrality of not only the police investigation of the Olsen incident, but of all OPD investigations involving police officer misconduct.

Van Sloten did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Whent promised to investigate Van Sloten's relationship with Roche. "We currently have a process in place to prevent officers from investigating cases involving individuals with whom they have a personal relationship," Whent wrote.

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