Twelve years after the Riders, a long legal process is reaching its final stage

OPD officers arrest a protester during the Occupy Oakland encampment eviction on October 25, 2011. Oakland officials may have to respond to criticisms of the OPD's actions during the Occupy Oakland protests at the next NSA meeting to discuss progress in the 12 years since the Riders settlement. Photo by Brittany Schell.

OPD officers arrest a protester during the Occupy Oakland encampment eviction on October 25, 2011. Oakland officials may have to respond to criticisms of the OPD's actions during the Occupy Oakland protests at the next NSA meeting to discuss progress in the 12 years since the Riders settlement. Photo by Brittany Schell.

Twelve years ago, the arrest of four police officers known as the “Riders,” who were accused of planting evidence and making false arrests, shocked Oakland residents and prompted a civil lawsuit against the city. Now the long legal process the case set in motion is reaching its final stages.

In January, Oakland officials will meet with a federal judge to report on the Oakland Police Department’s progress in reforming its rules and procedures in response to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2000 by 119 people who claimed they were victims of police brutality. The suit’s settlement requires that the OPD comply with a series of tasks to improve its internal investigations, training and other areas related to police discipline and accountability, as well as establish criteria for when officers can draw their weapons.

After next month’s check-in meeting, the OPD has until January 2014 to complete 22 reforms. If it succeeds in meeting the deadline, Oakland will conclude an 8-year period of federal oversight that has cost the city millions of dollars.  Should it fail, the police department would be placed in federal receivership, in which a group of law enforcement experts appointed by the US District Court of the Northern District of California would be in charge of making managerial and operational decisions for the department.

A case management conference is planned for January 19, 2012, at which the parties involved in the settlement will discuss the department’s progress. Although OPD and the City Administrator’s Office have not disclosed what will be discussed during the meeting, Oakland officials will have to respond to the observations of a federal monitoring group that has evaluated OPD’s progress in complying with the settlement reforms.

Accomplishing these police reforms has not been an easy task for Oakland.  The 51 tasks established in the agreement were originally supposed to have been fully implemented by 2008, but the compliance deadline has been extended three times. The most recent progress report, issued this October, shows that ten of the tasks were still uncompleted — including requiring police officers to report and justify every instance in which they use lethal weapons, and examining all police officers who have been constant targets of citizens’ complaints.

Because of the sensitivity of the ongoing legal preparations, OPD Interim Chief Howard Jordan, OPD spokesperson Johnna Watson, Oakland Police Officers’ Association president Dom Arotzarena, Mayor Jean Quan and Oakland’s Citywide Communications Director Karen Boyd all declined to comment in detail to Oakland North. But attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris, who represented the plaintiffs in the 2000 civil lawsuit and won the settlement in 2003, were able to offer some thoughts about what they hope will happen next.

“We want Oakland to meet the standards of other police departments in the U.S. and to be in accordance with the Constitution,” Chanin said.

The Riders case

The Riders case, one of the biggest scandals in Oakland’s history, started with the testimony of a 23-year-old rookie police officer.  In 2000, Officer Keith Batt had just graduated from the police academy and was working on his first assignments at the OPD under tutelage of a group of well-respected veteran police officers who called themselves “the Riders.”

But according to his court testimony, his admiration for the more experienced officers soon crumbled when he witnessed their unorthodox methods. According to Batt’s accounts, the Riders beat suspects, planted drugs on them, made unjustified arrests and wrote false reports. Batt said he was then forced to follow their lead.

The young police officer reported the Riders’ practices to the OPD’s Internal Affairs Division in 2000 and resigned shortly afterward. Batt’s reports prompted criminal investigations against the four accused officers: Frank Vazquez, Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno and Matthew Hornung.

Mabanag, Siapno and Hornung were fired and arrested in November, 2000. A few days before he was fired, Vazquez left the country;  it is believed he fled to Mexico, his home country. He has been sought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 2000.

The three other officers faced criminal charges for kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon, and filing false police reports.  They stood trial in the Alameda County Superior Court in 2003. The jury acquitted them on some of the charges and deadlocked on the rest. A second trial in 2005 ended with almost the same results.

According to news accounts at the time, the jury in both the 2003 and 2005 trials doubted the testimony of Batt, who said during the second trial that he had also filed false police reports during his time being trained by the Riders. “I thought [the defendants] were set up,” said one juror to The San Francisco Chronicle after the trial’s conclusion in 2003.

No third criminal trial was ever initiated. But on December 17, 2000, 15 alleged victims of the Riders filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Oakland. Civil rights attorneys Burris and Chanin represented the plaintiffs, whose numbers ultimately increased to 119.

Most of the plaintiffs were young men with a criminal history, mainly drug-related. “These men are the most vulnerable,” Burris said in a 2003 interview with The Washington Post. “They have prior convictions; they have served time in prison; they are on parole. They are not generally believed to be victims in a case like this.”  They accused the Riders of severely beating them and planting drugs as evidence in order to detain them; and they demanded financial compensation for the alleged police brutality.

The resulting three-year civil trial concluded in a settlement between the city and the 119 plaintiffs. In January 2003, Oakland agreed to pay $10.9 million in damages and attorneys’ fees. In addition, the city agreed to a non-monetary settlement that required the OPD to comply with a series of reforms to guarantee that no other Oakland police officer would follow in the steps of the Riders. These reforms are collectively referred to as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA).

“This has been a bleak chapter in Oakland’s history. Now a page is being turned,” former Oakland City Attorney John Russo said during a press conference in February 2003. “[The reforms] will serve the Oakland Police Department well in the 21st century.”

The process begins                    

Together with the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the court, Oakland officials established 51 reforms the OPD would have to implement in a five-year period. These reform tasks focused on improving investigations regarding unethical practices within the department and establishing ground rules for police conduct. The reforms were initially expected to be accomplished by 2008.

The parties selected a group of four law enforcement and civil right experts to evaluate the OPD’s progress in complying with the tasks, and to provide assistance and training to accomplish them. The members of the monitoring group were Rachel Burgess, a retired Division Chief with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Kelli Evans, a former trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice; Charles Gruber, former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and former police chief of Elgin, Illinois and Shreveport, Louisiana; and Christy Lopez, former attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice.

Oakland granted this group, known as the NSA Independent Monitoring Team, full access to the OPD’s facilities and documents to conduct inspections and audits. The group was expected to file quarterly reports on the OPD’s compliance with regard to the 51 tasks, and the OPD’s Office of the Inspector General was also expected to file semi-annual reports on the department’s progress.

The monitoring team and Oakland officials were to present the information from both reports to the plaintiffs’ attorneys and US Court Northern District of California Senior Judge Thelton Henderson, who had approved the NSA in 2003. (In his career, Henderson has overseen several similarly complex civil rights cases. In 2005, he ordered the California prison healthcare system to be placed in federal receivership to correct deficiencies and medical negligence problems that led to the death of several inmates.)

As part of the agreement, Oakland officials agreed to cover the expenses associated with the monitoring program. According to a document issued by the City Attorney’s Office in 2003, Oakland would have to budget $2 million a year for 5 years, the duration of the settlement. This included the cost of the monitoring group; $3.5 million total for the five years. However, the costs increased to approximately $15 million total for 2008 and 2009, according to a report from the OPD sent to the City Administrator’s office in 2007.

The settlement originally required the OPD to fully implement all 51 tasks by 2008. However, the monitoring group stated in a January 2007 report, at that point the OPD had only complied with 12 of the tasks. In the report, the group attributed this delay mainly to “continuing deficiencies in the manner in which OPD collects and manages data, including basic police operational data, such as arrest reports and officer schedules and assignments.”

In 2007, Henderson approved Oakland officials’ request to extend the compliance deadline to January 2010. But at the end of 2009, the monitoring group concluded that the OPD had still only complied with 30 of 51 tasks. Although the department had adopted all the policies required by the settlement, the group found cases of police misconduct that were not addressed under the new policies. As a result, they concluded that some of the tasks that involved police accountability and discipline remained incomplete.

“Our recent reviews and monitoring make clear that illegitimate disciplinary decisions still do occur, lending credence to the perception among the rank and file and the community that OPD lets some officers get away with known misconduct with no discipline or little more than a slap on the wrist,” the group concluded in its quarterly report issued in August, 2009.  “These cases, even if few in number, send a powerful message that makes it difficult for the Department and City to gain the community’s trust in the police department.”

In a combined semi-annual report for 2009, the OPD’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that although the OPD “fell short of compliance” on tasks related to reporting and investigating police misconduct, there “was a dramatic improvement” in this area in the last years. “When the Agreement was established, it had been commonplace for citizens to consult attorneys complaining of physical abuse by the police,” the report read. “Now this has become a rare event. OPD has shown steady and demonstrable improvement in its willingness and ability to assess whether its personnel are reporting misconduct that they knew or reasonably should have known occurred.”

Still, this reported progress was not enough to accomplish the settlement goals by the end of the new deadline. In 2009, Judge Henderson approved another extension for the compliance of the tasks, this time pushing back the deadline to January 2012.

Another deadline extension

The settlement parties selected another group of experts for a new independent monitoring group, after the experts from the first group announced they wouldn’t be able to continue evaluating OPD for the extended period.  The parties selected Police Performance Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that focuses on police department operations, to be in charge of monitoring the OPD’s compliance with the NSA. The firm is lead by Robert Warshaw, former police chief for Rochester, NY, and Statesville, NC, who also served as Associate Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1998 to 2004.

The parties agreed to reduce the number of pending tasks to 22. But according to the monitoring group’s last quarterly report, issued in October 2011, the OPD still hasn’t accomplished ten of these tasks.

In their reports, the members of the group have stated that most of the issues that prevented the OPD from complying with the settlement are cases related to excessive use of force by police officers, cases in which police officers have not adequately justified the reason for vehicle stops and detentions, and too many dismissed or deferred citizens’ police misconduct complaints.

According to the group’s findings reported in August 2011, of 80 events during which 215 officers drew and pointed their firearms at 177 persons in 2011, 22 were instances in which an officer pointed a firearm unjustifiably.  “We are troubled by the high number of instances,” the report read. “Equally concerning to us is the apparent approval of these reports and the officers’ actions by supervisors, without any comments or corrective measures.”

Another issue that the group pointed out in their reports is a lack of consistency in assessing citizens’ complaints of police misconduct. A policy adopted by the OPD as part of the NSA allows Internal Affairs investigators to dismiss complaints of police misconduct if they question the credibility of the complainant. The monitoring group found that in some cases investigators applied this clause incorrectly or without enough justification.

Their August 2011 report mentions one case, for example, in which an investigator questioned the credibility of a complainant “because he admittedly received some of his information third-hand, from a spouse at the scene.” The report concluded: “That in and of itself does not make the information suspect.”

The report also mentioned a case in which investigators dismissed a complaint because the police officer involved had been drinking. Alcohol “was used to discredit civilians in two different cases, and yet had no impact on an off-duty officer’s credibility in another, and even served to explain some of her actions, somehow relieving her of intent to violate policy because she had been drinking,” the report stated.

Attorney John Burris said that the concerns pointed out in the August report are worrisome for him and other people in charge of assessing the OPD’s progress in the settlement. “Too many times investigators have not addressed serious complaints because they claim they are unfounded or not credible,” he said. “This system was created to monitor police behavior, and it’s not functioning as it should.”

Oakland North requested an interview with Oakland’s Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan about the issues noted in the August report, but OPD’s Media Relations Officer Johnna Watson said that Jordan will not make any comments related to the settlement until Oakland officials meet with Judge Henderson for the January case management meeting.

Dominique Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, did not respond to Oakland North’s interview requests.

New problems?

The OPD’s Internal Affairs Division and the independent monitoring team are currently conducting investigations related to accusations of police misconduct and excessive use of force during the Occupy Oakland protests, Interim Police Chief Jordan announced during a press conference on October 27, a day after the first eviction of the Occupy camp and the first clash between police and protesters at 14th Street and Broadway.

According to Burris, clashes between Oakland police and the Occupy protesters this fall might be added to the list of issues Oakland officials would have to respond to in Judge Henderson’s courtroom in January, 2012.

Burris said that during the riots that followed the Occupy Oakland camp’s eviction, the OPD may have violated a crowd-control policy established after an anti-Iraq war protest at the Port of Oakland in April, 2003. During that 2003 incident, police officers fired wooden projectiles, threw sting ball grenades and broke crowds by riding in on motorcycles. A year later, Oakland paid approximately $2 million in damages to 52 protesters who filed a civil rights lawsuit in US District Court.

Under a policy established as part of the settlement in that case, OPD officers are not allowed to use wooden projectiles, stinger grenades and crowd dispersal methods that could injure protesters. Police officers must always arrest resisters instead of using weapons against them or using other methods to force them to move.

Several Occupy Oakland protesters and civil rights advocacy organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Lawyers Guild, have accused the OPD of using rubber and beanbag projectiles against protesters during the Occupy Oakland protests this fall. According to Chanin and Burris, Judge Henderson, who also oversaw the 2003 lawsuit settlement, might find that the OPD violated this crowd-control policy, which in turn might put in doubt the department’s progress in the NSA’s list of tasks related to use of force.

“In my opinion they did” violate the crowd control policy, Burris said. “The way they handled the eviction of the camp and the use of rubber pellets and tear gas during the protests are big no-no.”

Attorney Chanin, who also represented plaintiffs in the 2003 anti-war protest lawsuit, said the police actions during the Occupy Oakland protests may put the progress of OPD reforms in serious doubt. “They won the reputation for the most violent response to any protest against the Iraq war held in the United States,” he said. “Now they also responsible for the most violent response to a Occupy protest in the country.”

Chanin has prepared a motion to sanction the OPD and two of its officers under the Riders settlement agreement, for allegedly concealing an officer’s identity during the Occupy Oakland general strike of November 2. In January, Chanin said, he will present a video in federal court shot by a protester during the general strike that shows an OPD officer with his nametag covered by black tape. This would violate the witness identification requirements established in Task 35 of the NSA.

“There does not appear to be any reasonable or innocent explanation why an on-duty Oakland Police Officer would cover up the name tag on his uniform in this fashion,” Chanin wrote in his motion.  “This outrageous conduct clearly undermines and interferes with the witness identification and reporting requirements of the NSA.”

But both Burris and Chanin said it’s still unknown whether police actions during Occupy Oakland protests will be discussed in the next settlement meeting on January 19. OPD Media Relations staffers also said they could not confirm this until the independent monitoring team files its quarterly report in mid-January.

No more delays

The OPD was ordered to comply with the remaining NSA tasks by January 2012, but by last summer, the parties involved in the settlement agreed that the department needed another extension.

On June 27, 2011, Henderson agreed to extend the deadline to January 20, 2014 to give the OPD time to comply with the 10 remaining tasks. They include requiring police officers to report and justify every instance in which they use their weapons, examine all police officers who have been constant targets of citizens’ complaints, and apply consistent criteria in reporting and sanctioning police misconduct.

But the judge promised there would be no more extensions after that. According to a news report by The Oakland Tribune, during the most recent Riders settlement meeting, on September 22, Judge Henderson told Oakland officials he would not accept any more delays. “I’m not interested in listening to promises about how things are going to be,” he said, according to the Tribune account. “OPD is behind the times…the negotiated reforms are not rocket science and are achievable. We meet today to discuss a city that has still not achieved full compliance with the reforms proposed by its own experts nearly a decade ago.”

Later that day, Mayor Jean Quan announced at a press conference: “Some processes have been incredibly slow. I won’t deny that. I’m as frustrated as anyone. I told the judge we have made progress. We have improved. But we still have a long way to go.”

Burris agrees that there should be no more extensions. “Enough is enough. Eleven years is too much time,” he said. “If OPD doesn’t comply by 2014, it will be placed in receivership, period.”

Burris said that if the department is placed in receivership, an independent group of law enforcement experts appointed by the court would have managerial control of the department under Henderson’s authority. “It would not be able to make any decisions for itself,” he said of the police department.

Burris and Chanin said that the OPD would be the first police department in the US to undergo this process, if it fails to meet the 2014 deadline.

But, said Karen Boyd, Oakland’s citywide communications director,  “We are working to get into compliance well before then.”

On January 12, the settlement parties will file a joint statement to the court that will include the issues to be discussed in the conference management meeting on January 19. The details of the meeting will not be disclosed until the parties issue their statement.

Oakland North will continue to follow this story.

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