Could This Finally Be The Year of Police Reform in Oakland?
One or more measures that would establish stronger oversight of the Oakland Police Department may be headed for the November ballot.
Rashidah Grinage believes that an independent police commission is the only path for citizen control.
Frustrated with the Oakland Police Department’s slow progress in implementing court-mandated reforms that followed the Riders corruption scandal 13 years ago, a coalition of activists, current and former city staffers, church leaders, and labor unions have joined together to push for a police-oversight measure for the November ballot. The measure would place the police department under the control of a civilian police commission, which would have disciplinary authority over rank-and-file cops, the power to hire and fire the police chief, and unfettered access to police misconduct records.
If successful, the measure would represent a sea change in Oakland. Rashidah Grinage, a longtime Oakland activist who is working with the police watchdog group Coalition for Police Accountability, said it’s long overdue. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles have civilian police commissions, and Grinage noted that the Oakland police have one of the nation’s worst records when it comes to abiding by court-ordered reforms involving officer misconduct.
“It’s clear to me that without a sufficient authority … there’s no way that this police department will ever be brought to the kind of standard that we expect,” Grinage said in an interview. “The issue of authority is paramount.”
The Coalition for Police Accountability’s plan is backed by Oakland City Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb. The Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee is scheduled to review the proposal on June 14.
But it might not be the only police reform plan on the November ballot. Until a few days ago, Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington, Abel Guillen, and Larry Reid were sponsoring a competing measure that they contended would be more effective, but that activists said was too weak.
However, over the weekend, Campbell Washington, Guillen, and Reid withdrew their proposal in the wake of the expanding sexual misconduct scandal that is enveloping OPD. Last Thursday, federal court Monitor Robert Warshaw ousted Police Chief Sean Whent from his job. And then on Friday evening, this reporter and Darwin BondGraham of the East Bay Express published an investigative report on the Express’ website, revealing that at least 14 Oakland cops had had sex with the teenage girl at the center of the scandal, and that at least three of them had committed statutory rape.
Then on Monday, several labor unions in Oakland, including the cops’ union, came out in opposition to the Gallo-Kalb plan because it would revoke police officers’ rights to challenge discipline through arbitration. The unions also oppose an alternative proposal by Gallo and Kalb that would allow the civilian police commission to select arbitrators in disciplinary matters.
Under Oakland’s current structure, the mayor appoints the police chief, but the city administrator has final say over all disciplinary matters involving police officers. This setup has stirred much controversy in recent years. In 2012, then-City Administrator Deanna Santana came under intense fire after she ignored the police department’s own recommendations for discipline in officer misconduct cases and tried to alter a court-mandated independent report regarding the department’s crackdown on Occupy Oakland. Then in 2013, a court-appointed independent investigator reopened several high-profile misconduct cases in Oakland because they had been mishandled.
As of early June, the Coalition for Police Accountability proposed ballot language backed by Gallo and Kalb would do away with binding arbitration, a union contract provision that allows the Oakland Police Officers Association to legally challenge any discipline imposed on a police officer by the command staff, including termination. In recent years, the city of Oakland has performed dismally in arbitration cases, losing far more of them than it has won. And until recently, the Oakland City Attorney’s Office had done a poor job overseeing these cases. After a 2014 article exposed the city’s shoddy legal preparation for arbitration hearings, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversees the police department, tasked an independent consultant with auditing and rectifying Oakland’s arbitration appeals process.
Grinage pointed to the police department’s most recent sexual misconduct scandal—involving several young officers and the potential homicide of a police officer’s wife—as evidence that the reform efforts and oversight regime have yet to solve the department’s longstanding problems with internal affairs investigations and discipline.
“The department continues to cover up this sort of conduct,” Grinage said. Noting that most of the officers accused of misconduct in recent months are recent hires by the department, she also raised questions about the integrity of Oakland’s hiring and training.
Before they withdrew it, the competing measure drafted by Campbell Washington, Guillen, and Reid would also have created a civilian police commission, but would make it subservient to both the city administrator and a mayor-appointed “independent monitor.”
In an interview before Chief Whent was ousted from his job, Campbell Washington argued that this proposal is better than the oversight structure used in San Francisco, which has also been rocked by numerous police scandals in recent years. “The problem with a police commission is the power is very disparate,” Campbell Washington contended. “What you find over in San Francisco is that you don’t have any one official to hold accountable. In our proposal, you do.”
Campbell Washington, who worked as a chief of staff to mayors Jerry Brown and Jean Quan, said her proposal is more suitable for Oakland because it’s a product of her years serving as an intermediary between the mayor, the police department, the police union, attorneys, the court-appointed monitoring team, and all the other parties involved in oversight of Oakland police. “Over the past decade, the police department has made significant strides to reforming its culture, and I want to see that reform continued and sustained,” she said.
Police union representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this report. Any police reform measure would require approval by the city council to be on the November ballot. It's unclear whether Campbell Washington, Guillen, and Reid will revive their proposal in light of the unions' strong opposition to the Gallo-Kalb plan.
But the coalition behind the Gallo-Kalb ballot measure believes that only true independence will allow a police commission to succeed in establishing citizen control over Oakland police.
“If we don’t get an independent commission with this ballot measure, I think we’d be better off in receivership,” said Grinage, referring to a complete takeover of Oakland police by the federal courts— which was last threatened in 2013. The degree of “cultural resistance” to reform within OPD, Grinage said, means that “we need nothing less than that kind of authority and mandate to reform the department once and for all, be it through an independent police commission or through full federal control.”
A version of this report appears in the July edition of Oakland Magazine, which will be available on newsstands on June 17. We decided to post it today because of the rapidly changing events involving the Oakland Police Department. This report also has been modified to reflect some of the changes that occurred after the story went to press.