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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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According to public records, Roche earned $151,343 in total salary in 2013. He was reinstated with two years of back pay totaling more than $300,000. When that number is added to the legal settlements Oakland has paid out for the Olsen and Buenrostro cases, Roche has cost the city at least $5.3 million for his actions.

The Oakland City Attorney's Office handling of the Roche arbitration case also raises numerous questions. Before Roche's arbitration hearing began on April 7, Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker assigned a new attorney, Stephen Roberts of the Nossaman LLP firm in San Francisco, to defend Whent's decision to fire Roche. By contrast, Roche's attorney, Justin Buffington, who works for the law firm of Rains Lucia Stern, had represented his client since 2012.

In an interview, Olsen questioned Parker's decision to switch attorneys at the last minute, and believes it likely played a role in the arbitrator's ruling in Roche's favor. "Roche lies to the investigators and threw a stun grenade at someone in need of medical attention. How do you lose that case?" Olsen said.

Parker's decision-making also raised eyebrows among observers of OPD's disciplinary process. "Are the city attorneys capable of defending the city in use of force cases?" asked Professor Walker. "It's a matter of legal competency, and it appears that the police union has better, more experienced counsel."

Statistics produced by Parker's office show that the city has prevailed in just three of fifteen police arbitration cases since 2012. In seven cases, the city lost outright, with the officer's punishment being completely overturned (like it was in the Roche case). In five other cases, the arbitrator reduced the severity of the punishment.

But the Oakland Police Officers' Association (OPOA), the city's police union, contends that Parker's tallies are not correct. At an August 16 protest in West Oakland, Sergeant Jake Bassett, the vice president of OPOA, said the city had lost sixteen of out the last sixteen cases that went to arbitration. Determining who is right is difficult because arbitration cases are secret, and the decisions are released only if the officer in question chooses to do so. Even Stiteler's written order explaining the decision to mandate the rehiring of Roche is not publicly available.

As a result, it's hard to assess the performance and competence of lawyers hired by the City Attorney's Office in police arbitration cases. However, at least one other arbitration case provides insight into the city's handling of such cases and raises red flags not only about the attorneys involved, but also about police internal affairs investigations.

In March 2011, arbitrator David Gaba ordered the reinstatement of Officer Hector Jimenez. OPD had fired Jimenez two years earlier after he had killed two men — Andrew Moppin-Buckskin and Jody "Mack" Woodfox — in separate shootings within seven months of each other in 2008. Jimenez was a rookie officer at the time and had not cleared his one-year probationary period. Jimenez fatally shot Moppin-Buckskin on January 1, 2008, and then shot Woodfox in the back while Woodfox was fleeing from a traffic stop in July 2008.

OPD terminated Jimenez in July 2009 after a department investigation concluded that the officer had violated policy by firing on an unarmed, fleeing man who presented no threat. But arbitrator Gaba ruled that Jimenez had acted under a department policy that stated that officers "should consider any high-risk suspect to be armed until they have personally assured themselves otherwise." Like Roche, Jimenez was represented by Justin Buffington in his arbitration case. Jimenez received more than $200,000 in back pay from the city.

In the summer of 2011, attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin presented Judge Henderson with the results of an independent investigation they had conducted into the 2008 Woodfox shooting. Burris, who represented Woodfox's family in a wrongful death suit that resulted in a $650,000 settlement paid by the city, had hired a private investigator who located two witnesses to the shooting who hadn't been interviewed by OPD. Both witnesses confirmed that Woodfox had been fleeing and had his back to Jimenez when Jimenez shot and killed him.

"We found new witnesses to the Woodfox shooting, but the city refused to go out and interview them," Burris said. Chanin said the police department and the city's refusal to use the two witnesses seriously undermined Jimenez's termination once it reached arbitration.

Oakland cops, meanwhile, frequently point to another police disciplinary case — that of Officer Bryan Franks — as evidence that the City Attorney's Office mishandles its responsibilities. On September 25, 2011, Franks chased Arthur Raleigh down the 9900 block of Cherry Avenue in East Oakland after Raleigh ran from a car stop. Franks tackled Raleigh, who tumbled to the ground and dropped a revolver he was holding in his hand. According to Franks, Raleigh picked up the revolver and turned toward Franks while pointing the weapon. Franks fired his own gun, killing Raleigh.

Following an internal affairs investigation into the shooting, then-police chief Howard Jordan terminated Franks in April 2012. However, Franks' attorney Michael Rains (the lead partner in the firm that employs Buffington) uncovered an expert analysis of video footage from Franks' chest-mounted camera that had been withheld from Franks and OPD investigators by the Oakland City Attorney's Office. The analysis supported Franks' version of the facts. In July 2012, after the report surfaced, Jordan reversed his decision and rescinded Franks' termination letter.

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