New proposed measure would allow for civilian police comissioners
on September 8, 2016
Oakland’s mayor, the city council and some community watchdog groups agree that the city needs a new police oversight commission. They just don’t agree on what kind of police oversight commission.
Council members Noel Gallo (District 5) and Dan Kalb (District 1) proposed a city ballot measure that the council approved in July, which will ask voters to approve a new Oakland Police Commission on the November ballot.
Under the measure, seven civilian police commissioners will be empowered to oversee the department. Four of them will be selected by a civilian panel and three will be appointed directly by Mayor Libby Schaaf. There will also be two alternate commissioners in case of vacancy, one of which will be appointed by the mayor.
The commission would have the power to fire the police chief by a vote of five out of seven. It would also be responsible for reviewing and setting department policy, evaluating civilian complaints against officers and imposing discipline on the officers if commissioners deem it necessary.
Oakland currently has a Police Review Board charged with investigating misconduct complaints against officers, but the board does not have the power to impose discipline on officers. The new commission, if approved by Oakland voters, would have that power.
The measure passed unanimously in the Oakland city council, though council members Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) and Desley Brooks (District 6) unsuccessfully proposed a change that would have removed the mayor’s power to appoint commissioners. Giving the mayor three appointments means those commissioners could have effective veto power over a vote to remove the police chief, which requires five of seven votes.
“I think the fact that our police department is out of control is evident to most people,” said Rashidah Grinage, the coordinator of the Coalition for Police Accountability, one of the community organizations supporting the ballot initiative. “This measure seeks to remedy this long-standing problem.”
In fact, the measure was originally written by members of the coalition, an organization made up of a diverse array of Oakland community groups and individuals, including the Oakland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, a former city council member and a former chair of Oakland’s Police Review Board. The version of the proposal submitted by Kalb and Gallo is a modification of the original written by the coalition.
Grinage said the coalition supports Kalb and Gallo’s version, although they would prefer the mayor to have no appointments. “We wanted all of the commissioners to be appointed by a group of Oakland residents, rather than appointed by any particular official,” she said. “So what we have is a compromise.”
Supporters of the measure say the Oakland Police Department is in need of stronger oversight, pointing to recent revelations that more than a dozen Oakland officers were involved in a sex scandal involving a young woman, and the department’s continued inability to meet to the terms of a settlement agreement signed in 2003 in the wake of the “Riders” lawsuit.
In 2000, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 119 Oakland residents accused a group of Oakland police officers of brutality and planting evidence. Four Oakland officers, who referred to themselves as “The Riders” were criminally charged; one of them fled to Mexico and the other three were acquitted.
The suit led to a settlement agreement, overseen by Federal Judge Thelton Henderson and a court-appointed compliance director, imposing 51 tasks on the OPD, which were all supposed to be completed by 2008. According to current compliance director Robert Warshaw’s most recent compliance report, the department still has not fully met with several of the mandated reforms. A recent report from Stanford University, looking at stop data (statistics compiled by the OPD on traffic and pedestrian stops), which the department is required to collect under the terms of the agreement, found systemic racial bias in OPD policing techniques. According to the report, African American men were four times more likely than whites to be searched during a traffic stop, for example, and were more likely to be handcuffed even if the stop did not result in an arrest.
Grinage said the OPD’s continued inability to comply with the agreement is a major reason why the new oversight commission is necessary.
“That was supposed to have been completed in five years, and now we’re in our 13th year, and we’re still not in compliance,” she said. “So there’s no doubt, I think, in most people’s minds that the Oakland Police Department has been operating under the radar in terms of not being responsive to the federal judge or to the mayor or the residents of Oakland for quite a long time.”
Supporters of the measure also point to recent revelations that at least 14 OPD officers were involved in a scandal involving a young sex worker in Oakland. The scandal grew to encompass members of several other local departments.
The revelations led to three Oakland police chiefs resigning or being fired in one week, and the city is currently without a chief. In addition to the power to fire the police chief, the commission would have the power to hire a chief in case of vacancy. (Oakland North’s Rachel Loyd covered the city’s search for a new police chief here.)
Kaplan, the council member who voted to put the measure on the ballot after trying to remove the mayor’s appointments to the commission, said all of these issues taken together clearly demonstrate the need for a new system of police oversight.
“When there are accusations of misconduct, such as the most recent sexual misconduct scandal as well as previous cases involving excessive force and disparate racial treatment—there’s been a variety of different accusations over time—there’s a feeling that there’s no-one people can trust to oversee those questions,” she said. “That you need an independent body to be able to say what is or isn’t allowed … somebody independent of the police department hierarchy to be able to review allegations of misconduct, so that people can trust the outcome.”
An OPD spokesperson referred Oakland North to the mayor’s office for comment. The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, although Schaaf has previously gone on the record supporting the measure, telling the East Bay Express via email that “The proposal balances independence and accountability.”
Representatives from Oakland’s police union also did not respond to requests for comment.
But Kaplan, along with members of some community groups and even Gallo and Kalb themselves, have some reservations. At issue are the mayor’s appointments to the commission. “What the community had been asking for was that all seven members would be independently appointed,” Kaplan said.
Gallo said he would have preferred giving the mayor two appointments—or even zero—but he couldn’t get that proposal through the council. Gallo said Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3), along with President Pro Tem Larry Reid (District 7) and councilmembers Abel Guillén (District 2) and Annie Campbell Washington (District 4), favored giving the mayor’s office three appointments.
Reid, Guillén and Campbell Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time. McElhaney said that she had not pushed for keeping the mayor’s three appointments, but that she was “agnostic” on the issue. “I could vote either way [on the mayor’s appointments] because I think it’s immaterial to actually getting to safety,” McElhaney said. “Commissions have a marvelous history of being quite independent of the mayors that appoint them.”
McElhaney said she strongly supports the measure, but that it’s only one of many reforms she believes need to happen in Oakland and around the country, including hiring more officers from the communities they work in, and reforming training programs.
“Even when we’ve seen federal takeovers of police departments, communities like mine continue to have to deal with errant policing that doesn’t respect Black lives,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an Oakland problem, I don’t think it’s an OPD problem. I think American policing has a problem and Oakland has to do its part to lead in this discussion.”
The measure passed on July 26, at the council’s last session before their August recess, which Gallo said was the final opportunity to get it on the November ballot. “We needed to get it on the ballot on the timeline we were under, so that’s the best we could do to be able to place it on the agenda,” Gallo said.
San Francisco, Berkeley and BART, along with several smaller towns in the Bay Area, all have their own police review commissions analogous to Oakland’s current Police Review Board and the proposed police commission.
George Perezvelez, the chair of the Berkeley Police Review Commission and a member of the BART Police Citizen Review Board, said no other Bay Area civilian oversight agency has the power to fire the chief. He said the potential for a commission comprised of civilians being given firing power may make it more difficult for the city to find a new chief.
“The chief might not be given the opportunity to correct a problem, but there may be a knee-jerk reaction to terminate the chief,” he said. “If the termination is unlawful or the termination is an improper termination, the chief of police could sue the city for wrongful termination.”
Perezvelez said that despite his reservations, he still supports the measure. “I reluctantly would say that this measure would go a long way to making sure that there’s a higher level of accountability … and for that reason the voters of Oakland should consider passing this measure,” he said.
He said he doesn’t foresee the mayor’s appointments impeding the commission from deciding to terminate a police chief.
“I think that any mayor of Oakland is going to appoint community members who only have an interest in serving the community,” he said. “So I just don’t think that Libby—or anyone—is going to appoint three people that are going to be quote-unquote ‘protective of the police department and the police chief.’”
Cat Brooks, an Oakland resident and member of the Anti Police-Terror Project, an Oakland-based group that protests police brutality, had stronger criticism of the proposed commission. “In essence, what this commission has done is transfer control of the police from the mayor and city council to control of the police by the mayor and city council,” she said.
Kalb defended the mayor’s appointments to the commission, saying it will ensure Schaaf’s office remains accountable to voters. “We don’t want the mayor to be able to say ‘Well, don’t blame me, there’s this police commission that I have no control over’ and blah, blah, blah,” he said.
But Kalb offered a different criticism of the measure as it stands. He said he had hoped to modify the arbitration process between the city and the police union.
“These are things that need improvement, and we were trying to put that into law, and we got serious pushback to the point where there wasn’t the will or the support to do that,” he said. “We’ll try again during contract negotiations when that comes up in a couple years and we’ll see what kind of improvements we can make then.”
Kalb said the measure will ensure officers remain accountable to the community of Oakland. “While we know that most of our officers are good people doing a very difficult job, that’s not good enough,” he said. “We want to make sure that a message is sent loud and clear that stupid misconduct, serious misconduct, whatever the kind of misconduct is, is not going to be tolerated.”
Grinage said any weaknesses that become apparent in the commission can be changed by future ballot initiatives.
But Brooks, of the Anti Police-Terror Project, remains skeptical. “We need to be demanding radical and immediate transformation now, and wholeheartedly, summarily rejecting the logic that says we’re going to inch our way towards liberation,” she said. “Power only concedes what we demand, and we better get in the business of demanding the whole pie.”
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