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The Oakland Police Department Administration Building located in downtown Oakland.

Finding ‘significant cultural problems’ in Oakland Police Department, federal judge tells parties to find solution

on January 25, 2023

A federal judge charged with making sure Oakland implements police reforms it promised 20 years ago said during a hearing Tuesday that he was “profoundly disappointed” by a report showing the department has not complied.

During a hearing via Zoom, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick in San Francisco said “significant cultural problems remain unaddressed,” after the federal monitor overseeing the department’s compliance found evidence of police misconduct that went unpunished.

Orrick instructed all parties involved in the 2000 civil rights lawsuit against the city that triggered federal oversight, to propose ways to “get the job done” before the next case management conference on April 11.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao and City Administrator Ed Reiskin responded quickly last week to the misconduct revelations, putting Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong on paid administrative leave. Hours before Tuesday’s court hearing, Armstrong stood amid supporters that included the NAACP, saying he would fight to be reinstated.

“This is Oakland. If you want to pick a fight with somebody, Oakland is the wrong place to do it,” he told the crowd.

A Jan. 14 report filed with the court did not mention Armstrong, but cited “a failure of leadership” for enabling a sergeant’s misconduct to escalate. In the report, the firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen revealed that a sergeant was not disciplined for failing to report a hit-and-run accident in a San Francisco parking garage that he caused with a city-owned vehicle in March 2021. A year later, the report said, that same sergeant fired his gun in a department freight elevator, then hid the evidence by throwing the shell casing off the Bay Bridge.

While an Internal Affairs investigator found that the sergeant had violated the law in the hit-and-run, the report said a captain ordered the investigator to downgrade the findings. That has prompted a third investigation by Dyer & Cohen, into the department’s handling of the cases. 

“The multiple failures, at every level, to hold this sergeant responsible, belie OPD’s stated position that it can police itself and hold its members accountable for misconduct,” the report said.

Orrick noted that the investigation marks the third time the department has come close to compliance, only to slip. “That exposes rot within the department,” he said. Still, he added, the monitorship has led to improvements.

The department has been under federal oversight since 2003, when it entered into an agreement with the federal government that promised reforms to address the “Riders” corruption and brutality case involving several officers. More than 100 plaintiffs were part of the 2000 civil rights lawsuit against the city, which ended with an $11 million settlement.

Thao told the judge that her office would discipline any officer who engages in misconduct, and that she would be adding staff to the inspector general’s office. Acknowledging the officers who do their jobs faithfully, Thao added, “I will not tolerate toxic subcultures that try to demonize other officers.”

Thao has said Armstrong was placed on leave while the department’s handling of the misconduct cases is being investigated, stressing in a news conference last week, “It’s not meant to be punitive.”

Armstrong, a West Oakland native who has been on the force since 1999, said Tuesday, “I recognize that there have been problems over the years. I’m trying to fix the problem.”

Armstrong was promoted to chief in February 2021, a month before the hit-and-run at the center of the misconduct investigation. He followed Anne Kirkpatrick, the city’s first female police chief, who was hired in 2017 and fired in 2020. Kirkpatrick won a lawsuit against the city in June, claiming she was fired after raising concerns about abuse of power within the Police Commission.

In Armstrong’s absence, Assistant Chief Darren Allison is acting chief.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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