Oakland police are on probation and about to get rid of federal oversight: NPR

Oakland Police Department Chief of Police LeRonne L. Armstrong stands next to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, right, as he delivers remarks at a press conference in Oakland, In California.

Yalonda M. James/AP


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Yalonda M. James/AP


Oakland Police Department Chief of Police LeRonne L. Armstrong stands next to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, right, as he delivers remarks at a press conference in Oakland, In California.

Yalonda M. James/AP

A federal judge ruled late Thursday that California’s troubled Oakland Police Department (OPD) can take a big step toward ending nearly two decades of federal oversight created in the wake of a police corruption scandal in 2000.

U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick has ruled Oakland can now enter a one-year trial period after meeting dozens of reform measures required in a consent decree that followed related lawsuits to abuse by members of a West Oakland police anti-gang unit who called themselves “The Horsemen”.

Dozens of victims in 2000 claimed the Riders regularly planted drugs on suspects and occasionally inflicted beatings alongside falsified police reports, unlawful arrests and obstruction of justice. A rookie officer whistled; 119 Oakland victims have filed suit.

For nearly two decades, a court-appointed monitor has overseen whether the OPD complies with more than 50 reform-mandated actions. The monitors’ reports are then reviewed by a judge.

While acknowledging there’s still a lot of work to do, city mayor Libby Schaaf and Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong hailed the end of federal oversight as a sign of real progress. .

“I promised the City of Oakland that I would do everything I could to bring this department into full compliance with the 51 Tasks and that we would see no regression under my leadership,” the chief told NPR. . “I believe we got there because we worked even harder,” he said, calling the news “a testament to the high level of accountability” currently in place in Oakland.

But critics say OPD’s progress is fragile. And they think the fact that fundamental reforms have taken 20 years is outrageous in itself.

“It’s shameful. It’s shameful that it’s taken this long,” says Rashidah Grinage of the Oakland Coalition for Police Accountability. “It only underscores the level of resistance to these changes.”

And these changes have resulted from relentless and arduous pressure from lawyers and activists. “I would say [in] the first nine years there was no progress,” says attorney Jim Chanin who, along with fellow civil rights attorney John Burris, were the lead attorneys prosecuting the Riders case. “And then the last 10, they got to the point where they’re now on the verge of compliance.”

Now that Oakland is entering a one-year probationary period, or “sustainability,” to remove federal oversight altogether, police oversight groups fear the department is backing down.

“It scares me,” says Cat Brooks, co-founder and executive director of the Oakland-based Anti-Police Terror Project. “It scares me that we’re hearing they weren’t ready when federal oversight is over and they’re going back to the police department they’ve been.”

The effectiveness of consent decrees is still debated

Across the country, federal consent decrees like the Oakland Accord remain a key oversight tool, despite limited evidence that they are actually effective and useful. Critics say they are expensive, often limitless, and end up benefiting court-appointed consultants and having little lasting impact.

There was optimism when Oakland’s surveillance was first launched. Lawyers Chanin and Burris made it clear that they wanted more than settlement and money for their clients. Burris says they saw the rogue cop scandal as an opportunity to try to change an entrenched culture of police impunity in Oakland.

“For me, it was an opportunity to really put in place reforms that would affect people for a generation or more,” Burris told NPR.

At first, he says, they wanted to “understand where these issues were coming from… We were interested in questions about force. What kind of force is used? How is it recorded? in internal affairs. And that was a big problem.

The police department slowly ticked off federally mandated reforms. The OPD improved its use of force policies and practices, worked to reduce racial profiling in traffic stops – and more. Today, among the 40 largest police departments in America, Oakland has among the lowest incidents of officer-involved shootings — fatal and non-fatal. Allegations and payments for brutality and excessive force have dropped significantly.

“Unfortunately, it took over 20 years to do this and at a very high cost to everyone,” Burris says.

Many still wonder if the culture of the department has changed

And the progress made is seen as very precarious. The city has had 11 police chiefs in just over 20 years. Last year, homicides here soared again and the mayor called for the reversal of planned cuts to policing.

Today, Oakland agents are leaving the department in record numbers, creating a staffing crisis. The debate rages over how to reduce gun violence, homicides and robberies. Four people were murdered in a short time in part of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, a popular gathering place for families, runners and dog walkers.

“These senseless acts of homicide will not be tolerated. We all deserve safe neighborhoods,” said Nikki Fortunato Bas, a member of the Oakland City Council who represents the area.

And there have been half a dozen new scandals since the Riders case, including in 2016 when several OPD officers were criminally charged with sexually abusing a minor and continued to exploit her afterward. his 18 years. The city settled nearly a million dollars and the officers were fired. An independent report ruled that the department failed to adequately investigate these sex crimes – a violation of Federal Task No. 5.

It is always lawyers, journalists or victims who have denounced the corruption and abuses within the OPD. And attorney Chanin worries that when federal comptrollers pack up, the department could easily regress.

“We’ve been through 20 years. They have a perfect record of never discovering and remedying a single scandal on their own. So, I’m concerned about that. It’s bad. It’s worrying,” Chanin said.

Grinage, along with the Coalition for Police Accountability, is also worried. But she says the creation of the city’s independent, civilian-run police commission just a few years ago is a key safeguard to protect against backsliding since the Riders scandal. The commission has investigative and supervisory powers.

“Trust but verify, okay,” Grinage says. “We have a police commission that will check that they are compliant and take the necessary steps to ensure that if they are not compliant there will be repercussions.”

Repercussions like when the commission sacked police chief Anne Kirkpatrick in 2020. The former chief is now fighting her dismissal in court.

Police chief acknowledges ‘Oakland is a tough city’

“Oakland is a tough city,” acknowledges Chef Armstrong. He’s been chief of police here for just over 15 months. “I think these 15 months that we haven’t had any scandals or issues coming from the department that anyone might be concerned about our ability to stay compliant [with the consent decree] and practicing constitutional policing is the beginning of building a new story,” he says.

Activists who pushed for greater racial justice after George Floyd was killed in the knee of a Minneapolis police officer say any progress in Oakland was not the work of monitors or federal attorneys.

“It was the work of people on the streets that forced the OPD to change,” says activist Cat Brooks. She is not convinced that the OPD has changed much. Her culture of violence and recklessness, she says, runs too deep.

“If you go to East Oakland, they’re still profiled and they’re still harassed and tormented by the OPD. So right now, I’m glad they checked all the boxes. But that’s not a service. that this community trusts or should trust,” says Brooks.

After two decades, the last of the 51 reforms improved racial disparities in disciplinary policy, as more black officers faced discipline than their white counterparts.

For years, Oakland had no policy to collect and break down basic discipline data by race. “We now have a system in place where we can collect that data or we can track that data on an ongoing basis,” Chief Armstrong said. “And so what we’re going to do is ongoing analysis. Looking at that data, trying to better understand if we see any disparities, what’s driving them,” and changing policies as needed, he says.

Lawyer John Burris is cautiously optimistic that the reforms will continue. “I hope what we have put in place will last beyond a year [of probation]that it will last a generation”, he says, “otherwise for me it would not be worth it.”

In the end, the city paid some $11 million to 119 people to settle the Riders class action lawsuit’s corruption and brutality case. None of the four officers involved in the Riders scandal have been convicted. One of them was acquitted of all charges. Two had hung juries. The DA later dropped the charges. They all left the department. Two went into private security. One became a cop in Southern California.

And the alleged ringleader of the Riders gang, former officer Frank Vazquez? He skipped bail and fled the country on the eve of his trial. To this day, former Officer Vazquez remains a fugitive, his case open with the FBI.

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