Demian Bulwa and Carolyn Jones, 12/5/12
Oakland officials cut a last-minute deal Wednesday with civil rights attorneys that staves off an unprecedented federal takeover of the city’s police force, but hands tremendous power – including the ability to seek the firing of the police chief – to a court-appointed outsider.
The settlement, which must be approved by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, would create a “compliance director” charged with driving home a set of reforms that were ordered 10 years ago after a police-brutality scandal.
The civil rights attorneys had asked Henderson to place the police force into receivership, saying a broken culture had fouled the reform effort, endangering citizens – minorities, in particular – and prompting costly police-abuse lawsuits.
While the deal avoids an outright takeover, it nonetheless grants broad new powers to the federal court. The compliance director would be appointed by Henderson and answer to him, but would be paid from city coffers.
The appointee would be able to discipline or demote deputy chiefs and assistant chiefs and could punish or fire Chief Howard Jordan – though only after giving written notice and gaining court approval. The director could spend up to $250,000 at a time and direct City Administrator Deanna Santana in connection with the reform effort.
A promising path
City leaders lauded the settlement Wednesday, saying it offered a promising path toward emerging, at long last, from federal court oversight.
“It’s the best-case scenario for us based on the alternatives. We had always been opposed to a receiver,” said Jordan, who took part in the negotiations. “If you look at the duties and responsibilities, the compliance director will be charged with actually finding solutions and working with all stakeholders to get us into compliance.”
Jordan said the difference between a receiver and compliance director is that under a receiver the city would have had no say in who that person would be or what they could do. With a compliance director, the city can nominate candidates for the job and work with the appointee to help meet goals.
‘Would have no say’
“With the receiver we would have no say in the future of our department,” Jordan said.
Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, who helped craft the settlement along with attorney John Burris, said he sees little difference in the titles. He said it was important to city officials that the compliance director not be referred to as a receiver but called it a matter of semantics, saying, “I see this as a receiver with a different name.”
He said the compliance director’s power to fire the chief is unlike any other department he knows of in the nation.
Burris said he is “cautiously optimistic that we can set a more positive direction for the department and get it into compliance. If this is done properly, this department will be in a position to engage in constitutionally sound policing.”
Jordan said the city is in the process of identifying possible compliance directors, though it may be some time before that’s decided. According to Wednesday’s deal, the city and the civil rights lawyers would try to agree on a candidate, with Henderson making the final decision.
Mayor Jean Quan said the new agreement would help the department reach compliance. “We’re very grateful to the judge for this opportunity,” she said. “This will help us move on faster. It’s been months and months in the making and a lot of hard work.”
Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the Oakland Police Officers Association, said the deal gives officers a bigger stake in the reform effort, in stark contrast to previous agreements.
Under the settlement, the compliance director would meet with the union president at least once every three months to gain insights from the rank-and-file. The director could not alter union contracts.
“It formalizes the requirement that we get a seat at the table,” Lucia said.
Sgt. Barry Donelan, the union president, said the deal “lifted a cloud of uncertainty. All this talk of a receiver has moved us away from focusing on dealing with crime in Oakland. I’m hoping this is the blueprint for leadership to get into compliance and let the officers focus on serving the citizens.”
Crime is up
Major crimes are up 23 percent this year in Oakland. The police force has 626 officers, down from a high of 837 in December 2008. And The Chronicle reported last week that officers arrested 44 percent fewer people in 2011 than they did just three years before.
Chanin and Burris represented more than 100 people who sued the city after four officers, who called themselves the Riders, were accused in 2000 of imposing vigilante justice in West Oakland. In a resulting settlement, Oakland had to implement dozens of reforms – some that remain incomplete.
10 tasks to complete
The city still needs to complete 10 tasks before it can emerge from court oversight, including improving the way officers report use of force and gather racial data on people they stop. In an example of the failures in Oakland, a court-appointed monitor overseeing the reforms said officers often do not articulate a constitutional reason for making a stop.
The settlement reflects the city’s desire to diminish the power of the monitor, Robert Warshaw, who has been critical of the city’s progress since his appointment in January 2010.
The deal calls for status conferences to be held in front of Henderson, starting roughly six months after the appointment of the compliance director. If the judge finds the city is not making adequate progress on the reforms, he may impose “any appropriate remedy,” including receivership.