Judge keeps Oakland police under federal oversight, looks to address ‘cultural rot’
on April 12, 2023
A federal judge in San Francisco on Tuesday asked the Oakland Police Department, the mayor, and lawyers who brought a class-action suit against the department for input to address what he called the “cultural inability” of the Police Department to hold itself accountable.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick did not release the department from the federal oversight it has been under since 2003, when a settlement agreement in the lawsuit spelled out 51 tasks for the department to complete toward reform.
“The one issue that we haven’t made a ton of progress on is the cultural rot that existed at the time that you brought this suit 23 years ago,” Orrick told James Chanin, who, along with John Burris, represented the plaintiffs.
Orrick said by June 1 he expects to issue an order mapping out what tasks remain. The parties will next meet in court at a compliance hearing on Sept. 26.
“We do have to recognize that the question of culture is an ongoing process,” Burris said. “It is not one day, two days, then you stop. It is how do you handle the problems when they developed and whether or not the culture is such that you hold people accountable from beginning to end.”
Burris said that while he still has concerns about OPD’s culture, there has been a shift since the department came under federal oversight.
Rockne Lucia Jr., attorney for the Oakland Police Officers Association, agreed, saying, “This is not the same police department.” But Lucia said that doesn’t mean there won’t be occasional problems, adding, “I think we have to just accept the fact that people will make mistakes. We are human beings.”
Inability to police the police
The department was on the brink of being in full compliance of the settlement agreement until January, when a report by independent investigators found the department had mishandled misconduct cases against Sgt. Michael Chung in 2021 and 2022. A month later, newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao dismissed Chief LeRonne Armstrong, after a second investigation found Armstrong’s responses to investigators inconsistent and not credible.
Most of Tuesday’s hearing focused on which of the 51 tasks need more attention. Orrick said he was considering five, which have to do with internal affairs investigations, officer discipline and use of force reporting. The tasks laid out by the court address racial discrimination and civil rights issues. Federal oversight has been conducted by an independent monitor responsible for evaluating and assessing OPD’s progress on the tasks.
Tyfahra Milele, chair of the Oakland Police Commission, told Orrick that the commission was “ready to assume the monitor’s role” in ensuring the department’s accountability to the public.
But Orrick emphasized that it was the court’s responsibility to ensure that all requirements were met. Though the commission was not in existence when the terms of the agreement were drawn up, Orrick said he was encouraged that the commission remained dedicated to figuring out a path forward for oversight.
Brigid Martin, with the city attorney’s office, asked the judge to narrow the scope of the oversight to as few tasks as possible for the city to devote its time and resources to.
In a February hearing, Orrick asked the city and the lawyers representing the plaintiffs to file proposals for how Oakland could address the “significant cultural problems” that have kept the department from complying with the settlement.
Those recommendations were considered Tuesday.
“I’ve seen a lot of policies implemented to shore up the gaps in a myriad of tasks,” Orrick said. “But I’ve also seen what seems to be a cultural inability of OPD to police itself, to hold itself and its officers accountable without fear of favor and this seems particularly true involving OPD command staff.”
The parties originally agreed for federal monitoring to take place for five years. However, OPD did not reach full compliance with the terms by then, so monitoring has continued.
Under the lawsuit settlement, the city agreed to pay $10.9 million and comply with federal oversight. More than 100 plaintiffs alleged that Oakland cops Matthew Hornung, Jude Siapno, Francisco Vazquez, and Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag, a group known as the “Riders,” were responsible for kidnapping, brutalizing, and planting evidence. All four were fired and charged with criminal counts. Three of the officers were acquitted of most charges, and the alleged ringleader, Vazquez, fled before the trial and is still sought by the FBI.
Orrick highlighted tasks related to Internal Affairs standards after a 15-page investigation by the Dyer & Cohen law firm found that the department’s leadership had mishandled Chung’s case, which started with a hit-and-run accident in a San Francisco parking garage in 2021, while Chung was driving an OPD vehicle. He was not disciplined for the incident or charged with a crime. One year later, Chung fired his gun in a Police Department elevator and threw the spent bullet over the Bay Bridge, Dyer & Cohen reported. The investigation found “systemic failures” in the department’s handling of the case that were much more serious than Chung’s violations.
On Feb. 15, Thao fired Armstrong, saying she lacked confidence in his ability to “do the work needed to achieve the vision.”
Armstrong then filed an official appeal with the city to dispute his firing, which will be brought to a hearing in June, according to Sam Singer, a crisis consultant and Armstrong’s spokesperson.
Amstrong has since been campaigning to get his job back, saying he was not aware of all the details when he signed off on the Internal Affairs investigation into Chung’s conduct. Armstrong asserted that the federal monitor has a vested interest in continuing oversight of the department.
The Oakland Police Commission also raised issues about the federal monitor’s investigation, tweeting: “There were questions about the credibility and quality of the outside investigation.” The commission called Armstrong an “effective reform-minded chief,” in a meeting following his firing, and noted that the mayor did not consult the commission before making her decision.
In an interview, Burris said he also disagreed with the decision.
“I prefer that he had not been fired,” Burris said. “But the circumstances obviously were such that the mayor and others believe that he could no longer continue to serve. I didn’t agree with it at the time, but it was decided.”
Burris has represented Rodney King and commented as a legal expert on other police brutality cases, mainly those targeting Black men. He says it’s difficult to show progress with federal monitoring if there is a continuous turnover of police chiefs — the city has gone through 9 police chiefs since 2009.
Federal monitoring comes with a price tag. Last year alone, the city spent nearly $942,000, court records show.
Burris said it should be easier to meet federal requirements with a chief like Armstrong, who knows the department well. That process can be delayed, he noted, when someone new comes in without that institutional knowledge.
“I’d like to have a chief who either is a member of the department now or who has been a member of the department within the last three to five years,” Burris said in the interview with Oakland North.
Armstrong, who grew up in Oakland, has found a groundswell of support in the community, with supporters calling on Thao to reinstate him.
“The chief has supported the works of the families of homicide victims before he became chief,” Brenda Grisham, who lost her son to gun violence, said at a recent rally outside City Hall. “He’s been a community advocate like no other chief has ever been.”
At a news conference announcing her decision, Thao said she was committed to police reform “because it’s the right thing to do.” She is not alone in that effort. Cities across the country are taking a hard look at police practices and policies after a long series of police killings of unarmed men of color, particularly Black men, culminated in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, spurring worldwide protests against police brutality.
John Firman, a professor of practice in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, said accountability, transparency and diversity are key ingredients to police reform.
Police culture has been “to-hide-things,” he said, speaking generally about U.S. police departments. “That’s flipped now to you need to be absolutely, immediately transparent.”
OPD had complied with 49 of the 51 tasks outlined in the settlement agreement, according to a sustainability report filed this month. It missed the mark for certain complaint procedures, equity in officer discipline and in some interactions with the public. For example, according to the monthly report filed by the federal monitor, officers are not consistently giving residents their names and serial numbers upon request.
OPD also is not ensuring discipline is imposed in a fair and consistent way. The report highlighted how disparities “raise questions” about the department’s ability to enforce equity. Black officers were found to experience more “severe discipline” than white officers when failing to accept or refer a complaint. While 58% of Black officers were suspended for such infractions, 90% of white officers received counseling instead.
This echoed some of what was found in a 2020 study conducted by an outside group which conveyed that some respondents felt “who you know, and to which cliques you belong to” impacted what level of discipline would be administered by OPD.
The sustainability report noted that there is a “myriad of cultural deficiencies” that still exist, hindering the department’s compliance with all settlement tasks. These deficiencies were also mentioned in a joint statement by the mayor, city administrator, city attorney, Police Department and others who have been involved in discussions on how OPD should best implement the federal monitor’s recommendations.
The statement acknowledged that the department has made “great strides” but that “additional improvements” were needed in internal investigations.
In February, the police commission announced it had established a new ad hoc committee — led by retired Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte – to oversee its work to ensure the Police Department meets the federal mandates.
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