Our Backyard: Oakland Council Should Let the Cops be the Bad Guys

The police union is threatening to sue over a proposed ballot measure, and the council might gut the initiative as a result.


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The Oakland City Council.

The Oakland City Council and Mayor Libby Schaaf are meeting behind closed doors Friday afternoon to decide whether to gut a proposed ballot measure that seeks to establish civilian oversight of the city’s police force. The council and mayor are meeting in secret because of threats by the Oakland police union to sue the city in order to block the ballot measure from going before voters in November. The union—the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, or OPOA—is angry because the ballot measure would allow a new civilian police commission to fire or discipline cops who engage in misconduct.

But it would be a grave mistake for the council and mayor to cave in to the OPOA’s threats. The council instead should let the union sue. Because if the OPOA does so, then it will become crystal clear to all of Oakland that the only real impediment to reforming the city’s long-troubled police department is the police officers themselves. Indeed, if cops are successful in depriving Oaklanders of their democratic right to vote, then the resulting anger and frustration in Oakland will finally be directed to where it has always belonged. In short, the council should let the cops be the bad guys.

“This is a defining moment,” said longtime police accountability activist Rashidah Grinage to the council and mayor, before they began meeting in private in a third-floor conference room in City Hall on Friday afternoon. “Which side are you on?”

Grinage was accompanied by other members of the Coalition for Police Accountability, including Pamela Drake and Larry White, along with Gary Jimenez, regional vice president of SEIU Local 1021. Jimenez also told the council that his union “fully supports creating a strong, independent, civilian police commission.”

Jimenez’s appearance at the council meeting was considered crucial, because many councilmembers are wary of putting a police reform measure on the ballot if other unions are also opposed to it. Earlier, SEIU and other unions had vowed to fight the police accountability measure, before activists agreed to continue to allow police officers the right to arbitration if they disagree with the punishment meted out by the new civilian commission.

At issue currently is a provision of the ballot measure that the OPOA contends violates its contract with the city. Under Article 12 of the union’s contract, the council must offer to “meet and confer” with the OPOA if it proposes to alter working conditions covered in the contract, including discipline. The council has made that offer in relation to the proposed ballot measure, but the OPOA is refusing to meet with the council. The union is pointing to a so-called “zipper clause” in Article 12 that states that it can decline to meet and confer until the contract expires on June 30, 2019. The union contends that under this provision, if it decides it doesn’t want to meet, then the council is prohibited from going forward with the ballot measure as is.

At the heart of the dispute is the most important section of the proposed ballot measure: If approved by voters, it would allow civilian investigators employed by the new commission to thoroughly investigate allegations of police wrongdoing and then recommend discipline or termination of the offending officer. If the police chief then disagrees with the recommendation, then the civilian commission would have the final say (although the officer could still take the case to arbitration). Police accountability activists say this portion of the ballot measure establishes true civilian oversight of police for the first time in Oakland. Indeed, it would be truly groundbreaking.

But Grinage and Drake say they’ve been told that City Attorney Barbara Parker has privately warned the council that the OPOA might very well win if it sues the city, because of the zipper clause.

As a result, the council is considering taking out the discipline section of the ballot measure. But if it does so, then the measure would essentially become toothless: It would create a civilian panel that has no power to fire or discipline bad cops. The only real reform left in the measure would be the commission’s ability to fire the police chief.

The council is also considering other options, including whether to create a severability clause in the measure, so if that if the OPOA does sue, then the rest of the ballot measure, including the clause that allows the commission to fire incompetent chiefs, would still go on the November ballot.

Or the council could decide to alter the police discipline section of the ballot measure so that it goes into effect in 2019, after the OPOA’s contract expires. However, the police union might still sue if the council takes this route on the grounds that the city is unilaterally deciding working conditions before a new contract is even negotiated.

Some members of the council are also concerned that other city unions, particularly Local 21 (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers), might side with the police union on principle—that the city should not be in the business of altering aspects of a union contract while it’s still in effect.

The council is scheduled to vote in public on its decision on Tuesday night, July 26.

Although it will be a tough decision, the choice is clear. If the council gives into the OPOA, then it will be viewed as being complicit in blocking police reform—at a time when the issue has never been more pressing in Oakland, considering the recent series of scandals.

But if the council stands tough and moves forward with a ballot measure that creates a strong new police commission, and the OPOA sues, then everyone in Oakland will know exactly who to blame.   

Our Backyard is an occasional column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

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