Policing watchdog groups push for changes to Oakland’s Police Commission
on September 16, 2019
On Thursday evening, about 30 members of local police accountability and activist groups met in the library of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute to talk about the Oakland Police Commission’s first 20 months and whether an amendment to city law is needed to ensure its independence and basic functioning. Participants took their seats under the library’s dark wooden bookcases and crown molding, features that deepened the solemn feel of the event.
The meeting was called by the Coalition of Police Accountability (CPA), a group formed in 2011 to establish a police commission in Oakland and monitor its effectiveness. They were joined by representatives of other groups, including the Anti Police-Terror Project and Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity, former mayor Jean Quan, and Bobbi Lopez, policy director for Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan. Henry Gage III, an incoming member of the Oakland Police Commission, was the only commission member present.
In 2016, Measure LL was passed by 83 percent of voters to amend the city’s charter and establish the police commission. The public push for police accountability developed in the wake of the discovery that a teen known as Celeste Guap was sexually exploited by Oakland police officers.
The seven civilians and two alternate members who make up the commission review cases of police misconduct and have the power to change and create police policy regarding use of force, profiling practices and First Amendment issues. With mayoral approval or establishment of “cause” under city law, the commission can also remove the Chief of Police. Mayor Libby Schaaf appoints three members and one alternate member on the commission, while a selection panel chooses the remaining four members as well as a second alternate.
But at the meeting, many attendees argued that conflicts of interest, lack of funds, unaccountable staff and lack of transparency prevent the commission from being able to police the police. Calling on the community to work together to strengthen the commission, Cathy Leonard, the founder of consulting group Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity, said “the only thing standing between me and a police officer with a gun is the police commission.”
Commission member Gage summarized some problems that he sees the commission facing. First, he said, local officials often rebuff commission members’ requests for the personnel records of officers accused of misconduct. According to Gage, the commission can’t view personnel records unless the Community Police Review Agency (CPRA), the investigative arm of the commission, and the Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD) disagree about an officer’s misconduct.
Tension between the commission and these offices escalated regarding the case of Joshua Pawlik, a homeless man who was fatally shot by Oakland police in 2018. According to media reports, Pawlik was armed and unconscious at the time he was approached by officers. Earlier this year, IAD and the Criminal Investigation Division, followed by CPRA, concluded that the officers who killed Pawlik should be exonerated. In March, the police department’s Executive Force Review Board agreed with those findings.
But in May, the commission unanimously rejected both the IAD and CPRA recommendations for the officers who shot Pawlik to be exonerated, saying their investigative methods were deeply flawed. Later, the commission submitted their own report recommending the officers be fired. Now, the officers are suing the city, saying that the commission members wrongfully called for their termination.
The threat of lawsuits touches on another issue hamstringing the police commission, according to Gage. “There are some glaring conflicts of interest” in the City Attorney’s Office’s relationship with the commission, he said. The City Attorney’s Office serves as legal counsel for all Oakland city departments, including the police and the commission. “The City Attorney’s Office can’t represent the city administration, the police department and the police commission simultaneously,” said Gage.
Because the city attorney was representing the police department and the commission that opposed that suit, Gage said, the commission successfully petitioned for “conflict counsel,” meaning the City Attorney’s Office selected and hired another attorney to advise commission members.
Other audience members noted the problem of the commission’s current inability to hire or control staff. The single employee of the commission, according to Gage, is not obligated to attend all commission meetings.
“Unlike most commissions, which are advisory and usually you have to be OK’ed by the council or by the mayor, this one was intended to have its own independent powers,” said Quan, who preceded Schaaf as Oakland’s mayor. “So that’s why it needs its own independent staff that they control.”
At the meeting, people talked about a 2020 ballot measure that could rework Measure LL to reduce conflicts of interest and mayoral influence on the appointment to the commission, and to improve the commission’s working conditions and access to information.
“I thought once Measure LL passed, I could step back and things would get better,” said CPA member Larry White, who helped draft Measure LL. “How naive I was,” he continued, “because in fact the fight just started.”
Two days earlier, during a Public Safety Committee at Oakland City Hall, Kaplan announced that she is in the process of drafting an amendment to Measure LL for the March ballot. At that meeting, she said, it is “absolutely essential to respond to real concerns in terms of the need for the commission to be able to hire their own inspector general and get legal advice in order to ensure the commission will be truly independent.”
Following Kaplan’s announcement, Vice Chair of the Police Commission Ginale Harris told the other city officials that “for the last 18 months we’ve been working with a broken wing.” She said that the commission needs access to legal counsel and that mayoral appointments create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Harris did not respond when asked for further comment by Oakland North.
At Thursday night’s community meeting, participants created on large sheets of paper a list of possible amendments to Measure LL. Ideas included: drug testing officers at the scene of police shootings, barring appointees from the mayor, creating a seat on the commission for a person under age 25 and paying commissioners for their work.
Current Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) member and former commission member Maureen Benson pointed out that APTP had also released a list of recommendations to amend Measure LL earlier this month. The list includes salaries for commission members. APTP also recommends that potential committee members be nominated by community organizations.
White cautioned that there are limits to what an amendment to Measure LL can do. “We’re amending the city charter,” White said, “which is essentially the Constitution of Oakland. But unlike the U.S. Constitution, there are limits to the power of the city charter.”
In short, he said, state law, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and the police union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city all take precedence over any amendment to the city charter. “This is going to be a huge fight,” White said.
Leonard said she’s ready for that fight. “We need to all be fighting this battle together,” she said. “I’m sick and tired of having to wonder which one of my family members is going to be killed.”
Lopez said at the meeting that Kaplan’s office intends to present a report on October 22, before the Public Safety Committee that day. By November 7, Kaplan hopes to have a measure ready for the next ballot, she said.
This article was corrected on September 17, 2019 to reflect that the police commission retained conflict council because the city attorney’s office was representing the police department, not the the police officers who shot Joshua Pawlik. APTP’s list of recommendations was also corrected to only include the group’s recommendations for the police commission and not the civilian complaints office.
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