Matthew Artz, 10/04/12
Two prominent civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge Thursday to install a receiver over Oakland’s police department with absolute authority to force through still unmet court-ordered reforms and potentially the power to help pick the next chief.
In a much-anticipated 57-page motion, attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin argued that nearly 10 years after agreeing to judicial monitoring, Oakland’s police department remains incapable of policing itself on several fronts — including conducting thorough Internal Affairs investigations, tracking the actions of its officers and preventing racial profiling.
Without a receiver to ensure compliance, they wrote, Oakland residents, especially minorities, would face “continued civil rights violations, loss of life and injury.”
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson has scheduled a hearing on the motion for Dec. 13.
Mayor Jean Quan refused to comment on the motion late Thursday, saying they needed time to consult with their attorneys.
Michael Rains, who represents Oakland’s police union, said the rank-and-file were so frustrated with what they saw as arbitrary discipline from Chief Howard Jordan and department brass that they weren’t necessarily opposed to a receiver.
“There has been an absolute lack of meaningful leadership in the department for the last decade,” he said. “From the standpoint of (the union), the current chief has been an abysmal failure and a massive disappointment.”
The city is expected to vigorously oppose the motion, which would make Oakland the nation’s only city to lose substantial authority over its police department. It has until Nov. 8 to respond to the filing.
The department has been under the eye of a court-appointed federal monitor since a 2003 agreement that settled the Riders’ police corruption case.
Burris and Chanin, who represented the plaintiffs in that case, say the monitor, whose powers are limited, has proven unable to get city leaders to fully implement the reforms.
A receiver, they wrote, “would be able to issue enforceable commands to the city and (police).”
“I don’t see the receiver micromanaging the department; I see them forcing the department to follow the (settlement agreement),” Chanin said.
Chanin said he didn’t think a receiver would be able to break the city’s budget by ordering the hiring of more officers or toss out the police union’s contract.
Ultimately, it would be up to Judge Henderson to define the receiver’s role. Chanin said he thinks the receiver should have input into the chief’s job.
“There is a systemic failure,” he said. “We want to see the highest levels of the police department held accountable.”
Decade of failure
The motion documents what the attorneys say has been a decade of bad faith efforts by multiple police chiefs, city administrators and mayors to fully implement the reforms.
It also argues that rank-and-file officers continue to oppose reform efforts.
Two women gave testimony that officers criticized the court oversight at Citizen Police Academies earlier this year. One said that an officer claimed that Judge Henderson was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army — a 70s radical group.
The motion references recent blistering reports from the city’s own consultant about the botched response to the first Occupy Oakland protest last October and from the court appointed monitor who found that some officers have shot people who were not imminent threats and that investigators are predisposed to justify those shootings.
The attorneys quote Jordan saying that to some degree Internal Affairs “investigators do not want to be the individual who sustains a complaint against a particular measure.”
The lack of institutional control, the attorneys write, has contributed to the city paying out more than $31 million in police lawsuit awards since 2001.
While they note that receivership is a “drastic measure,” the attorneys wrote that without it, the “organizational dysfunction and lack of leadership will doom the (court-ordered) reforms to failure.”
The request for a receiver is the culmination of the 1999 Riders police corruption scandal in which four officers were accused of beating up and framing suspects.
The 2003 agreement settling the lawsuit brought by 119 plaintiffs required Oakland police to accept federal monitoring and implement dozens of reforms. The reforms were supposed to have been completed no later than 2010, but the department has struggled with nine tasks and appeared to lose ground over the past year.
In recent reports, the federal monitor has found that officers resort to pointing their guns without justification almost exclusively at black and Latino residents and that they are failing to document people they stop and detain so that supervisors can identify racial profiling trends.
The monitor also warned that the department could fall out of compliance with other reform tasks if it doesn’t take measures to correct mistakes made during the first Occupy Oakland protest last year.