The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) jointly sent a public records request to the Oakland Police Department this week, asking for detailed information about the arrests and use of force in response to the Occupy Oakland confrontations.
The volatile demonstrations began as Oakland police and 16 other law enforcement agencies tore down two Occupy Oakland campsites before dawn Tuesday morning, ordering the campers to disperse. Nearly 100 people were arrested at the campsite and in the protests that followed, which included the use of batons and chemical agents like tear gas to control or disperse the crowds around Frank Ogawa Plaza, where the main Occupy encampment had been growing.
“The ACLU & NLG are also calling for an end to excessive police force and a full investigation,” said Northern California ACLU spokeswoman Rebecca Farmer.
The records requested include those specifying the incident commanders for the morning raids; detailed accounts of who gave the dispersal orders; when the orders were given to the crowd; and the exact measures taken to address the situation. They also ask the OPD to release names of officers who approved the use of chemical agents, sound and light devices, and batons for crowd control.
Rachel Letterman, an NLG attorney who co-authored the request with ACLU attorney Linda Lye, said that no records had been released yet, but that the city attorney’s office had acknowledged the request, which also asks for the names of all participating agencies, as well as all police communication, records of arrests, records logs and records of properties damaged during the riots.
Lye said she hoped the city attorney’s office would cooperate fully. “I got a call that day from the city’s attorney office committing to transparency and reliability, and so we’re very pleased with that,” she said. “They indicated that there were issues with resources but that they would get the records.”
Letterman, on the other hand, said she was not convinced. “Last time I tried to get public records on Oakland based on egregious conduct like this, they didn’t give them to me, and we actually had to sue them,” she said. “But you never know. You might be surprised.”
Under the law, the city attorney’s office must respond to such a request within ten days, but the deadline may be extended by two weeks if there are extenuating circumstances. “Given the urgency of the situation, I hope its sooner,” said Lye.
The Oakland Police Department has had trouble in the past with the NLG and the ACLU over charges of excessive force, following the use of sting-ball grenades, shot-filled bean bags, and large wooden bullets in response to an anti-war protest in 2003. Back then, a number of lawyers associations joined in a class-action lawsuit against the department. This led to the OPD adopting a crowd control policy that is supposed to limit the force that may be used in these situations.
NLG and ACLU lawyers are accusing the OPD of violating this policy over the last week. In a blog post on Wednesday, Lye wrote, “The Policy prohibits the Department from firing bean bags or other ‘Direct Fired Specialty Impact Less-Lethal Munitions,’ such as rubber bullets, ‘indiscriminately against a crowd or group of persons even if some members of the crowd or group are violent or disruptive.’” But these were shot into crowds of people during the protests arbitrarily, Lye asserted.
As of midday Friday, Oakland Police had not returned phone and email messages seeking a response to the records requests and policy violation charges. But Oakland’s Chief Howard Jordan released a public statement early Friday, declaring that all allegations of assault by police officers were being investigated by internal and external investigative sources. “Under the circumstances of this event our officers used what they believed to be the least amount of force possible to protect themselves and gain control of the situation,” Jordan said. “As a community, we must preserve our position that any act of assault against officers or each other in our community is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated.”
Jordan said in his statement that he and Oakland officials were trying to work with Occupy Oakland protestors and local business and community members to keep people safe while ensuring “the facilitation of free speech and peaceful demonstrations which is, and always has been our primary goal.”
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.