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Arrest of former Oakland councilmember sparks outrage at committee meeting

on October 24, 2019

Tuesday night’s Oakland Public Safety Committee meeting’s main agenda item—reviewing a report about holding a special election to amend the regulations that govern the Oakland Police Commission—was initially upstaged by jarring testimony from former Councilmember Wilson Riles Jr. about his arrest last week. 

Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan introduced the issue for the committee to address. “Our colleague, former Councilmember Wilson Riles, was arrested—” Kaplan began, but was interrupted by members of the crowd yelling, “brutalized!”

“And brutalized, and improperly treated, it appears, in significant ways,” Kaplan continued.

Riles was given the floor to describe to the councilmembers and the public how he was arrested last Thursday while leaving Oakland’s Planning and Zoning Department. Riles, who had served on the city council from 1979 to 1992 representing District 5, said he had gone to the office about a years’-long issue over a sweat lodge built in his family’s backyard. He said he had asked a city employee to look up the zoning codes relevant to having a sweat lodge, and the employee refused.

Riles said he argued with the city employee, was unsatisfied by the argument, and left. As he was leaving, Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers arrived. “They didn’t say they were there to deal with me. They didn’t say anything to me about arresting me. One of the officers stood in the way in a narrow hall and blocked me from leaving,” he said. Riles said that when he tried to move around the officer, the officer grabbed him. As he described it, he was blocked, tripped and forced to the ground by about three or four officers.

Other news reports contained slightly different accounts of the incident. According to an article on the KTVU Fox 2 website, when Riles asked the city inspector on staff to review the codes regarding his sweat lodge, he was warned that the police would be called if he didn’t leave the office. The article notes that instead of leaving right then, Riles met with a supervisor first. The article also had the number of OPD officers at four or five.

Several other stories, including one that ran on KPIX on Monday, quoted an email from Oakland city spokesperson Karen Boyd stating that Riles was detained after a 911 caller reported that “a hostile man had chased a city inspector into the restricted staff-only area.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Riles said he spent the rest of the day at Santa Rita Jail, “sitting around with some other residents of Oakland hearing about how unjust our government is towards all of us, not just me as a councilmember. But this is happening to too many people.”

He was charged with battery against an officer and is out of jail on a $20,000 bond. He is scheduled to appear in court on November 18. 

Riles said would be bringing a complaint about the OPD to the police commission. And, he added, “I want to sit down with you, as committee members, and with other folks in the city council, and begin to look at how you can hold city employees accountable.”

His attorney, Walter Riley, spoke at the meeting as well. “When they grabbed him by the arms and twisted to take him down to the ground, they do this not just to Wilson Riles, but to many other people,” Riley said. “We have to change the enforcement policy. We have to change the use of force policy.”

During open forum, people—including members of anti-police activist groups and Riles’ wife and daughter—said they were furious about the incident, and about how the City Administrator’s Office responded by releasing Boyd’s letter without including a comment from Riles and while the OPD investigation is still ongoing.

“Shame on you all for that trash letter that you put out,” said former mayoral candidate Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP). “I’m a communications expert. Whoever’s strategy it was from the communications department to write that letter, you should fire them.” 

“It is appalling also that the city administrator and the mayor put out that letter regarding the incident with Wilson Riles, having already done their investigation and already come to their conclusions and put out their position to mislead the public,” said Riley. “That is unacceptable and needs to be sanctioned.”

Kaplan called the incident a strong example of why she believes there needs to be an independent police commission overseeing the OPD. “This is very troubling,” said Kaplan. “This reinforces why we need independent oversight.”

In 2016, voters passed Measure LL to create the city’s police commission, which empowered a panel of civilian commissioners to oversee the OPD and investigate claims of police misconduct. But in the years since, community groups have found issues with the commission, which were discussed at a September meeting called by the Coalition of Police Accountability (CPA). At the meeting, people argued that the commission suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest that are hindering the commission’s effectiveness.

Kaplan spearheaded a report suggesting measures to help strengthen the commission’s independence and oversight, including a resolution empowering the commission to make its own hiring and firing decisions, ensuring that no Interim Chief of Police can be simultaneously employed in another city position, and requiring that all commissioners receive race and equity training. Community groups such as the CPA and APTP requested the development of these proposals, and also helped provide input and information during the report’s development process.

Councilmembers were given the report earlier on Tuesday and then used the meeting time to ask questions and provide feedback after listening to Riles’ testimony.

Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents District 2, added that it might be worthwhile to require training for the commissioners on how to handle cases dealing with victims of human trafficking. “Myself and Councilmember [Noel] Gallo have been looking at human trafficking in our districts,” said Bas, saying that it was important to her that police have training for dealing with sexually-exploited children or gender-based violence. “I would be interested in hearing community feedback on whether it’s helpful for commissioners to receive some of those training,” Bas said. Kaplan agreed.

Henry Gage III, a recently-appointed member of the police commission, spoke during open forum, suggesting another measure to add. “It’s important to explicitly state that the commission and its staff have the authority to access police personnel records,” said Gage.

The council is considering holding a special election on March 3, 2020, for voters to decide on possible amendments to the measure that formed the police commission. But the residents and representatives from community groups present at Tuesday’s meeting were divided over whether a special election should be held in March or November 2020.

During open forum, Lorelei Bosserman of the CPA thanked Kaplan for working to improve the commission’s independence. “I think it should be on the ballot for March, because the police commission has been operating without a full toolbox. They have been getting the work done, but with one hand tied behind their back,” Bosserman said.

But Maureen Benson, a former member of the police commission who said she resigned from the commission in February “due to the fact that there was dismay over systemic failure,” was in favor of waiting until next November, when “way more impacted families would be at the polls.”

Kaplan noted the crowd’s and councilmembers’ feedback on her report and said she would make revisions.

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