Our Backyard: Solid Reform

Although not perfect, the measure to create a strong civilian police commission in Oakland represents a significant step forward.


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In late July, it looked as if the Oakland City Council might gut a proposed ballot measure that seeks to create a strong, independent civilian police commission. The powerful Oakland police union—the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, or OPOA—had threatened to sue over the measure. But the council stood strong and voted unanimously on July 26 to put a solid proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Although not perfect, the ballot measure represents significant reform for Oakland and its long-troubled police department. If approved by voters, the new Oakland Community Police Review Commission would have the power to thoroughly investigate officer misconduct, terminate cops for wrongdoing, and fire the police chief for cause.

One compromise that police accountability activists agreed to involved arbitration. The OPOA and other unions vowed to oppose the measure if it eliminated or restricted a police officer’s ability to seek arbitration in discipline disputes. Activists knew that even though arbitrators have often reinstated fired cops, the measure had little hope of passing if the city’s unions were united against it.

Some activists have criticized the council for including a provision allowing the mayor to appoint three of the new commission’s seven members. They claim this would enhance the mayor’s powers. But such arguments betray a misunderstanding of the mayor’s powers.

Under the city charter, the mayor has the power to fire the police chief by virtue of her ability to hire and fire the city administrator. In fact, in June Mayor Libby Schaaf terminated interim Chief Ben Fairow. But if the ballot measure passes, the commission would be able to fire the chief even when the mayor disagrees. The mayor also would be forced to hire a new chief from a short list assembled by the commission.

In addition, through the city administrator, the mayor now has the power to overrule the chief’s decisions on police discipline. But the ballot measure also gives these powers to the new commission.

In other words, even with the mayor’s three appointments, the ballot measure would significantly reduce the mayor’s authority over police, and thus could finally depoliticize the process of holding cops accountable.

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

Published online on Sept. 7, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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