Will Oakland, California’s New Police Commission Make a Difference?
November 14, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Last week Oakland, California voters, with an 82% majority, voiced approval for a new civilian police commission. The new entity will have the power to investigate police misconduct, impose discipline along with hiring or firing the police chief. When your city votes a measure in with that high a percentage, it’s clear that most people think the cops are a problem.
How much this will impact policing in Oakland is anyone’s guess. The department has been under federal oversight since 2003 that began with a rookie officer blowing the whistle on four cops known as “The Riders,” who allegedly beat, planted drugs on and otherwise framed Oakland residents. The result was a huge $11.9 million payout to more than 100 plaintiff’s and years of federal monitoring. Three of the officers were acquitted and one remains a fugitive.
It took a long time for the Oakland police department to even get started on implementing the 51 reforms outlined by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. He was forced to threaten city officials with contempt and to extend the monitoring over lack of progress.
Finally, in 2015, it looked like the police department was nearing an acceptable level of compliance with the reforms when a sex scandal involving an underage prostitute broke-out. Fault Lines has mentioned it a few times. This resulted in extension of monitoring and Judge Henderson taking over the investigation into officers allegedly involved with the victim. The department still has problems with excessive force complaints.
Oakland already has a Civilian Police Review Board, but it seems like so many other police review boards across the country, it has no teeth. In 2015, the city administrator was able to dismiss or modify 74% of the board’s recommendations for officer discipline. Rashidah Grinage, of the Oakland Coalition for Police Accountability, says this is about par for the course. The commission makes a finding then the city administrator reverses it after finding out what the police have to say.
The recent sex scandal, along with accusations of a murder cover-up by a former OPD homicide detective, emerged under the significant scrutiny of federal monitors. Will this new commission have the teeth to get something done?
The mayor gets to appoint three members of the new commission. The other four will be chosen by a “selection panel” of Oakland residents chosen by the mayor and city council. The city administrator will hire the police commission’s investigative agency head from a short-list provided by the commission.
Looking at it from this angle, it looks a bit less like a civilian oversight panel and more like a political appointee agency. Giving the person responsible for denying three-quarters of disciplinary recommendations put forth by the existing review board the power to choose the new investigatory lead should at least raise a few questions.
Also interesting is that the Oakland Police Officer’s Association didn’t put up any obvious resistance to the new plan. Other than opposing the council’s initial plan to eliminate binding arbitration for officers found guilty of misconduct, the union was fairly quiet. Binding arbitration may be viewed as the real protection for poor performing or bad cops because it tends to get them their jobs back. No matter what the review board decides, an unaccountable arbitrator can singlehandedly reverse it and there is nothing Oakland can do about it.
In Oakland, standing fast on the arbitration issue would have triggered a “meet and confer” process with union officials and kept the measure from reaching the ballot in time. For now, activists for police accountability seem satisfied with the progress getting the measure approved represents and are eager to roll up their sleeves and get to work.