Jeff Shuttleworth, 9/22/11
A federal judge criticized the Oakland Police Department today for its slow pace in making reforms required by the settlement of a major police misconduct case eight years ago.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson said Oakland is “a city that has still not complied with the reforms that were proposed by its own experts nearly a decade ago.”
Henderson said police issues that have arisen in the past year “indicate that the city and the police department still don’t get it” in terms of making major changes.
“A lot has remained the same and there’s an attitude and a culture of resistance” to implementing reforms, Henderson said.
However, Henderson stopped short of placing the department under federal control and set another hearing for January to see how much progress the department has made since then.
Today’s hearing was the latest in a long series of hearings stemming from an agreement on Jan. 22, 2003, that settled a lawsuit filed by 119 Oakland citizens who alleged that four officers known as the “Riders” beat them, made false arrests and planted evidence on them in 2000.
Three of the four so-called “Riders” officers were tried in two lengthy criminal trials in 2002-03 and 2004-05, but all of the charges were eventually dismissed after the trials ended in a combination of acquittals on some counts and jury deadlocks on others.
The fourth officer is believed to have fled the country to avoid prosecution.
The settlement included payments of $10.5 million to the plaintiffs and their attorneys and calls for the department to make reforms such as increased field supervision, better training and improved investigation of citizen complaints.
A recent report by a court-appointed monitor says the Oakland Police Department is in full compliance with 32 of the reforms mandated in the settlement but has not fully complied with 19 additional measures.
Attorney James Chanin, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, said “progress has been insufficient” in making all the required reforms and he doesn’t think the department is taking the settlement seriously.
Chanin told Henderson, “The only way to make things happen is for you to give them a deadline to make the necessary changes and let them know that if they don’t meet it someone else will be brought in to do it for them.”
John Burris, another attorney for the plaintiffs, also complained about the slow pace of change, saying, “It’s a tragedy to spend all this money and time and not be further along in making reforms.”
But Oakland Chief Assistant City Attorney Randolph Hall said, “The city is committed to making changes,” although he admitted the pace of making the mandated reforms is slow and “there are attitudinal issues and systemic issues that need to be addressed” in the police department.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan told Henderson that she’s “committed” to making all the reforms as soon as possible and “I’m the person responsible to you” for making them happen.
Quan said, “I’ve tried to be more active” in pushing the police reforms than her two predecessors in the mayor’s office, Ron Dellums and Jerry Brown.
Henderson seemed impressed by Quan’s comments, telling her, “Thank you for that commitment” and “I’m encouraged.”
However, Henderson said he’s troubled by several recent developments, including a recent report by the federal monitoring team that found that in 28 percent of the instances when Oakland officers drew their guns and pointed them at someone, the person demonstrated no threat to anyone.
The monitors said that in the instances when they believed the pointing of a firearm wasn’t necessary or appropriate, 78 percent of the subjects contacted by officers were black and 17 percent were Hispanic.
Henderson said, “I understand that officers regularly confront dangerous situations, but the number of times they drew their weapons was astounding.”
But Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the union that represents Oakland police officers, said he believes Oakland officers are justified in drawing their guns most of the time and the high number of inappropriate incidents cited by the monitors is caused by “a deficiency in the system,” not in officers.
Lucia said that because of inadequate training and other circumstances, officers often don’t do a good job of explaining in their reports why they drew their guns.
Henderson said he also was disturbed that Oakland police described a crackdown on parole violators this summer as “Operation Tune-Up,” which he said is a well-known euphemism for officers beating up suspects.
The judge said he’s upset that the police department has “a culture that allows this name to be chosen.”
Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts told Henderson he agrees that the name for the police operation was inappropriate, saying “it should not have happened.”
Batts, who has only been chief for two years, said the department has had a tradition of using military terms for its special operations but he is discontinuing that practice.
“We’re not at war with our community and that has changed,” Batts said.
After the hearing, Chanin said his first choice would be for the Oakland Police Department and city officials to implement all the required reforms on their own.
But he said the time for having someone else, such as federal officials, make the changes “is rapidly approaching.”