The Police Commission, Rumors & a Tale of Two Cities

Photo by Michael Short, Special to the Chronicle

As Winston Chruchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Nevertheless, as another wise Brit almost said, we have to give truth a chance.

What am I talking about, Trump, Mitch McConnell or even the DNC? No, I’m referring to the excellent work of PR flack Sam Singer, who has somewhat successfully sought to turn a former police chief who was fired by the mayor who hired her, into some kind of victim.

A day before this same fired police chief filed a claim against the City of Oakland, our mayor sent out an email far and wide denouncing or at least seeking to limit the Police Commission she says she initially supported. It was filled with “mistruths”, shall we say.

Perhaps she grew confused as so many versions of a clean-up measure of the original Measure LL proliferated around the City Council that even the watchdog group the Coalition for Police Accountability [yes, I am a member] grew concerned and requested a lengthier period of public vetting.

A Divided City Responds

In any case, the way you, dear voter, responded to the mayor’s assertions about the Police Commission probably had more to do with where you live and/or what color you are-or how carefully you digest local news-than anything else. We still live in a divided city even including the added complexities of gentrification.

But let’s get to some facts now:

  1. No one has ever suggested that the Commission be able to override or dictate operational decisions much less emergency responses, as author CM Dan Kalb affirms in his newsletter, “the proposed Charter measure revisions do not give the Commission authority to override day-to-day operational actions by OPD command staff or officers, or to unilaterally override any policy or general order from the Chief of Police.” Need I say PERIOD?
  2. “Second, even if the Commission requests (by a super-majority vote) additional policy authority, the power to grant the Police Commission any additional policy authority will continue to rest with the elected City Council (also by a super-majority vote).” Also a quote from CMKalb’s recent newsletter discussing his latest version of the measure. In other words, the Council makes the final decision on policy changes and members do respond to public opinion.
  3. Although the Police Commissioners themselves are civilians [it is after all a citizen body in which the chicken, in this case highly respected chickens, keep watch over the henhouse] the new measure would include the funding and definition of the position of Inspector General who would be a professional working with the Commission and regular performance audits of the Commission’s work. As CM Kalb puts it, it’s full of checks and balances.

OPD under Court Oversight for 17 Years & counting

For those who have forgotten history or are willing to repeat it, our police department has stubbornly resisted reform , or rather our leaders have stubbornly resisted demanding it, for a very long time. The voters grew weary and after one of our most straight arrow police chiefs, Sean Whent, [I and others thought he really was the guy to get the job done] failed spectacularly-when we discovered that the use and abuse of a teenage girl by some officers was allowed to go on and then covered up-we voted overwhelmingly for strong civilian oversight.

But, curiously, the response of this current administration to the implementation of Measure LL, the Police Commission and its investigative arm, the Community Police Review Agency, CPRA, has been to block its effectiveness and independence at every opportunity. This among other experiences during the rollout of this new approach to police oversight has necessitated the proposal to tweak, not overturn or expand the operations of the the Commission and CPRA.

The other changes to the original charter amendment were necessitated by a hope that the Negotiated Settlement Agreement which resulted in court oversight of our troubled department for the last 17 years, will come finally come to an end. When it does, oversight will fall on the city not the courts so the Commission’s duties and responsiblities need to be provided for in preparation.

In fact the courts are clear that without careful mechanisms for oversight, the court’s role will continue and that oversight will continue to be funded by us, the taxpayers.

Unmasking Anne Kirkpatrick

The claims, counter claims, rumors and machinations of a fired chief, remember, fired by the same mayor who so hopefully hired her, have muddied the waters around the practice and purpose of citizen oversight. Kirkpatrick doesn’t like it, didn’t like it and no one would blame her for that. It’s the nature of the beast that we as workers prefer not to be watched, graded nor publicly exposed when we do wrong.

But, after so many failed chiefs and so much ugliness around the case of the underage girl who was so used and abused by so many officers in so many departments, it finally became obvious even to those Oaklanders who have never had a negative interaction with Oakland’s finest that something had to be done.

So when a new chief, a woman who would surely put an end to, in the mayor’s own words, “Schaaf vowed to “root out what is clearly a toxic, macho, culture” within the city’s police department” there was hope.

Unfortunately, one of Kirkpatrick’s first decisions was to promote some of the commanders who had been accused in the cover-up and when that proved problematic, she moved to close the promotional ceremony to the press.

Soon after, Kirkpatrick found herself in over her head as Trump’s newly empowered ICE teams roamed city streets around the country looking for undocumented folks to deport. Even after the city had declared itself a sanctuary from their egregious activities [unless a crime, not an immigration violation, had been committeed] banging on people’s doors day or night demanding access without a legal warrant-the chief found herself giving cover to their activities.

An immigrant family was disrupted by ICE which had convinced the chief that they had a good enough reason to arrest individuals in that house that OPD gave cover to the agents. It took just a little bit of digging to find out that ICE lied or exaggerated the situation and the chief might have been excused for falling for their their lies.

But no, she choose to cover her mistake up and then lied about the coverup. This was the beginning of community distrust. Ultimately, she chose a buddy-buddy relationship with rank and file officers rather than that of a tough leader and when a homeless man was killed and she exonerated the officers, things came to a boil.

In truth, prior to that, the judge in charge of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, had already warned this chief that the department was slipping backward in the compliance necessary to end the NSA and return oversight to city officials. But the chief did not seem to take that warning seriously.

Since then the city has proposed a settlement to the mother of the slain man in the amount of $1.4 million. Oversight may cost money, but lax oversight costs even more in lives and treasure.

So, the Commission had been meeting for months over concerns about the leadership of Kirkpatrick and seemed poised to present “cause” for a possible dismissal [the only way the PC can fire the chief is for cause] when the mayor stepped in and fired Kirkpatrick herself. As a result, the residents of Oakland never got to hear the deliberations of the Commission but now the mayor herself seems to ascribe nefarious motives that denigrate this hardworking group, implying that she herself did not understand why she fired the chief.

Interestingly, Mayor Schaaf is able to appoint almost half of the commissioners directly and that the current chair is the nationally renowned leader of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, Regina Jackson, a Schaaf appointee.

A Vote of the People

For all the folks beseeching the Oakland City Council to not “amend” the rules under which the Police Commission operates and who call for a public vote, that is exactly what CMs Kalb and Kaplan are seeking, a referendum on these proposed improvements. Since these changes require additions to the city charter, they would go on the ballot in November and would require that a majority of the voters of Oakland support them.

Has OPD improved? I believe they have and that officers in any big city have a tough job that should command good benefits, pay and civic support. At the same time any organization with the ability to make life or death decisions over civilians requires clear civilian oversight which also requires support from its leaders. How that oversight is accomplished is indeed a decision for the voters to consider and they will get that chance.

Please take the opportunity to vote on civilian oversight seriously and not allow rumors, spin or false charges to influence you. For many Oaklanders, it’s a life and death decision.

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