UPDATE: Mayor fires Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong; Police Commission weighs in
on February 15, 2023
Mayor Sheng Thao fired Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong Wednesday, saying she lost confidence in his ability to lead the department.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Thao said she wasn’t firing Armstrong for cause, though an independent investigation found that he failed to discipline a police sergeant for a hit-and-run accident in 2021. A year later, that same officer fired his gun in a Police Department elevator and destroyed the evidence, investigators found.
Thao stressed that she was not taking disciplinary action against Armstrong. But, she said, she felt compelled to address the investigation’s findings and to instill a culture of integrity and fairness in the department, which has been under federal oversight since 2003.
“I am no longer confident that Chief Armstrong can do the work needed to achieve the vision,” she said.
Thao’s news conference took place 90 minutes before the city’s Police Commission was scheduled to convene a meeting to discuss the chief’s position. The mayor can fire the chief without cause, but the commission also has that authority, though it must present a reason.
After meeting in a closed session Wednesday night, the commission issued a statement on Twitter, saying it respected Thao’s decision and noting that its members were not informed about it ahead of time. The commission said it was sorry to lose “an effective reform-minded chief.”
In a statement issued after Thao’s announcement, Armstrong called himself a reformer and his termination unjustified, according to published reports.
Thao put Armstrong on administrative leave on Jan. 19 after a report of the investigation was filed in the decadeslong brutality lawsuit that led to federal oversight and a directive for the department to meet 52 criteria for reform. The department was on the brink of being released from that oversight, but during a January hearing, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick in San Francisco said the report showed “significant cultural problems remain unaddressed.”
That same day, Armstrong appeared in a news conference with the NAACP and dozens of community members, calling on Thao to reinstate him. He has since been campaigning to keep his job, saying he was not aware of all the details when he signed off on the Internal Affairs investigation into the sergeant’s misconduct, and asserting that the federal monitor has a vested interest in continuing oversight of the department.
The Police Commission also raised issues about the federal monitor’s investigation, saying in its tweet: “There were questions about the credibility and quality of the outside investigation.” That’s why the commission put together a discipline committee to examine the allegations. It also noted that under Armstrong, Oakland had met 51 of the 52 criteria spelled out in the settlement agreement from the $11 million class-action suit.
Saying the independent investigation “exposes rot within the department,” Orrick asked the city and the lawyers representing more than 100 plaintiffs in the lawsuit to file proposals in April about how Oakland can meet all the criteria established by the court. Thao said Wednesday that she is committed to reform “because it’s the right thing to do.”
The independent investigation by the San Francisco law firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen into the hit-and-run and gun incidents was filed with the federal case. And this week, The Oaklandside and other media published the leaked 57-page confidential investigation by the same firm into OPD’s handling of the case. That report focused on the aftermath of the hit-and-run involving Sgt. Michael Chung, who was driving an OPD vehicle when he crashed into a car in a San Francisco parking garage in March 2021 and didn’t stop to report it.
Armstrong claimed he was unaware of the facts about the collision and denied that he spoke with any members of OPD regarding the hit-and-run, according to the report. Others in the department told investigators that Armstrong knew the details and had asked questions about the case.
“Given these inconsistencies and concerns about whether he was fully forthcoming during his interview with investigators, Chief Armstrong was ultimately found to be not credible,” the investigators concluded.
On Dec. 23, 2021, during a regular Internal Affairs Division meeting, Armstrong declined to show a video of the collision and shut down discussion of the incident so that no more questions could be asked, the report said. That, investigators found, was a violation of the chief’s duty to determine the outcome of the investigation.
Armstrong told investigators he had heard about the collision and it piqued his interest because it came not through a department report but through an insurance claim, given that the vehicle involved belonged to the department. Armstrong went on to say that he didn’t recall learning much from the initial briefing about the collision and that he was unaware it was captured on surveillance video until the IAD presentation on Dec. 23.
The initial internal affairs report was revised at the direction of Capt. Wilson Lau, the investigation notes, calling it a preventable collision, rather than a hit-and-run. The revision failed to note that an officer subordinate to Chung was in the vehicle with him, and that the pair were romantically involved.
Armstrong said he didn’t know about the revisions because Lau typically did not discuss those with him. The investigators found both Armstrong and Lau not credible in their statements.
Armstrong, a West Oakland native, has been on administrative leave with pay, since late Jan. 19. He has been with the Oakland Police Department since 1999 and was promoted to chief in February 2021.
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.
Assistant Chief Darren Allison has been serving as acting chief.
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