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Oakland to vote on stronger police oversight

on October 30, 2020

On Nov. 3, Oaklanders will vote on whether to strengthen the Oakland Police Commission, the civilian body that oversees the Oakland Police Department (OPD). 

A “yes” vote on Oakland Measure S1 by more than 50% of voters would increase the commission’s power and independence. It would create an Office of the Inspector General outside of OPD that would investigate and review the city’s handling of police misconduct, authorize the commission to hire its own legal counsel, and allow the commission to require OPD’s Chief of Police to respond to requests for information. 

“I’m quite sure [Measure S1] is going to pass,” said Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who co-authored the measure with Council President Rebecca Kaplan. 

The measure has a wide base of support. Law enforcement reform activist organizations including the Coalition for Police Accountability endorsed the measure. The Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA), the union that represents OPD officers, stands behind it too.

The OPOA did not respond to requests to comment for this story. But Sergeant Barry Donelan, President of OPOA, voiced his support for the measure in a September 2020 press release.

“In order for Oakland’s police to provide the highest level of service to the community, we need to become ‘active participants’ in the conversation,” Donelan said. “We believe supporting the Police Commission measure is a good first step toward rebuilding public trust and confidence with the community we serve.”

OPOA also purchased a full-page ad in the East Bay Times that encouraged Oaklanders to vote yes for Measure S1.

Nobody filed an official argument against Measure S1 for the ballot. But some organizations, like the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), decided not to endorse the measure. On its voter guide, SPUR gave Measure S1 a “No Recommendation.” 

“Despite the improvements that Measure S1 would bring, SPUR is concerned that the Police Commission’s role is overly scoped and inadequately supported. It is unclear that the additional authority and independence provided by Measure S1 will solve these challenges,” the guide says.

An analysis of Measure S1 by the Oakland City Auditor concluded that the changes outlined in the measure would cost the city about $1.6 million each year. Most of that money is already budgeted, so the additional cost to the city would be about $300,000 per year and up to $150,000 in additional costs every three years.

Measure S1 represents a turning point for the commission. Since its founding in 2017, the commission has taken significant actions to hold OPD accountable, but it has also struggled to establish itself as an effective check on the police department. The all-volunteer board faced a series of hurdles that hampered its progress, including challenges hiring its own staff, setting up the Office of the Inspector General, and establishing its own independent authority. But if passed, Measure S1 would put in place new structures that would make it easier for the commission to effectively regulate OPD.

Before the current police commission, Oakland had a Citizens’ Police Review Board (CPRB) that listened to community members’ police misconduct complaints. CPRB forwarded disciplinary recommendations to the City Administrator and suggested policy changes to OPD.

“It had no effective power, all it could do was recommend,” said Larry White, an activist with the Coalition for Police Accountability (CPA).  

At the same time, OPD was plagued with high-profile scandals. In 2003, a group of officers were charged with using brutal tactics, including beating falsely arrested people, in the ‘riders’ case. As a result, the city agreed to go under federal oversight until it implemented a series of police reforms. 

Seventeen years later, OPD still has not fully corrected course. It remains under federal oversight

So in 2015, activists from CPA brought a proposition to the Oakland City Council that would increase the strength of Oakland’s civilian oversight system. After months of negotiations with stakeholders, including with the police department itself, the council placed Oakland Measure LL on the ballot. Eighty-three percent  of voters supported the measure and the Oakland Police Commission was born.

Regina Jackson is the Chair of the Oakland Police Commission, and she was one of the commission’s original members when it met for the first time in 2017. Given the easy passage of Measure LL, Jackson thought getting the commission up and running would be “smooth sailing.”

“But it would seem that none of the systems inside the city administration were supportive of [the commission], even though it was overwhelmingly supported by the citizenry of Oakland,” she said.

The all-volunteer commission was not provided with some of its most basic infrastructural needs for three months.

“We didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have emails, we didn’t have staff, we didn’t have anything,” Jackson explained. 

Jackson says that the City Administrator at that time, Sabrina Landreth, was responsible for that situation. Edward Resiken took over as Oakland’s City Administrator in spring 2020.

The City of Oakland did not respond to requests for comment from Oakland North.

The commission did eventually get a staffer and email addresses. But the growing pains continued. The commission clashed with the city over whether the commission could supervise a new Office of the Inspector General and the commission’s desire to hire legal counsel that would be independent of Oakland’s Office of the City Attorney, which also represents OPD.

As recently as an April 2019 public meeting, Edwin Prather, who served as a commissioner from December 2017 through September 2020, expressed his frustration.

“I knew that getting the police department to accept an oversight entity where none previously existed was going to be a difficult thing,” he said. “I don’t think I understood that there were going to be forces within the city that were going to be dilatory and obstructive towards our progress.”

In an audit released in June of this year, Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby highlighted that more work needed to be done for the commission to effectively meet its mission.

“Oakland’s Police Commission was created to be one of the most powerful police oversight bodies in the country, however, it must be effectively organized and properly supported to use its power to create lasting systemic change for the community and the Police Department,” she wrote.

Despite these conflicts, the commission has taken significant actions to hold OPD accountable. For example, the commission lost faith in the leadership of former OPD Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. They approached Mayor Libby Schaaf with their concerns, and Mayor Schaaf fired Kirkpatrick. 

The commission has also used their power to set policies for OPD. In July of 2019, the commission wrote a new OPD policy aimed to prevent officers from stopping and searching people just because they are on probation or parole. On Oct. 9, 2020, the commission adopted a new use of force policy for the department that emphasized using de-escalation techniques.

The commission also played an active role in the termination of the five police officers involved in shooting Joshua Pawlick to death in March 2018..

The Oakland Police Commission has faced a challenging first three years, but its chair, Regina Jackson, is proud of its young legacy. Her goal over the coming years is to have the oversight body continue to learn and grow, to “make Oakland the national example of constitutional policing done right.”

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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