Sean Maher, 9/18/10
A federal judge told top Oakland police officials Thursday he would consider sanctions and contempt proceedings against them if the department’s reform in wake of the Riders police misconduct case doesn’t improve.
Judge Thelton Henderson’s threats came on the heels of a “disappointing report” from the court’s monitors, who are charged with writing quarterly evaluations of how the Oakland Police Department is coming along in the dozens of tasks to which the department agreed in case’s settlement eight years ago.
Henderson said he would even consider a receivership — under which the department could be placed under federal control — but that such a move would be “drastic.”
If such an action were taken, Henderson could appoint someone from outside the department who would have authority over the chief to oversee an area of reform not yet completed to the satisfaction of the judge or monitors, Oakland police officials said, adding that sanctions or fines could be brought if the judge feels someone is maliciously trying to impede implementation of all or part of the agreement.
Henderson said he’s now asking for weekly reports from the monitors.
“I am unconvinced the promise of change is any more real than it was five years ago,” when former police Chief Wayne Tucker assumed office and made promises similar to Batts’, Henderson said.
Robert Warshaw, a former police chief and head of the monitoring team, said he was concerned the department’s efforts to address the problems relied too heavily on forming committees and adding bureaucracy, “building up and out” rather than down and into foundation issues.
Of particular contention was the department’s use of IPAS Inspection, a program designed to give supervisors an array of information about their subordinates’ on-the-job behavior, including the number of sick days they take and the number of Internal Affairs or excessive force complaints they receive.
Monitors found the department has made ineffective use of the program, with entries not being made and supervisors not being held responsible for the information the system contains.
The IPAS system has been altered since the monitors finished their second-quarter report, said police Capt. Benson Fairow, who is in charge of the program.
Fairow said the department is reducing its reliance on summary findings and focusing more on interviews when red flags go up about its officers.
City Administrator Dan Lindheim said it’s important to understand, but not necessarily accept, that institutional change happens slowly.
“In context, two years ago there was no system, and it was only one year ago the system became functional,” Lindheim said of the IPAS issue. He added that the layoffs the department suffered in July — and are likely to suffer again if voters don’t approve a new parcel tax in November — mostly affect the newest recruits, leaving a department staffed predominantly by “those who worked under older regimes.”
“At the end of the day, any officer who came in from 2006 to the present will be laid off,” if the parcel tax doesn’t pass, Lindheim said.
Jim Chanin, who along with John Burris represented 119 plaintiffs named in the Riders’ case and has pressed the department to hold to its agreement ever since, said he doesn’t believe officers are being punished for failing their end of the agreements.
“A truly cultural, meaningful, lasting change would make ordeals like the last eight years no longer necessary,” Chanin said.
“If things have not changed enough by the end of the year, we’re going to ask for more involvement from the court,” Burris added.
Rocio Fierro, an attorney for the police department, said she understood the court’s frustration but cited a January 2009 search warrant scandal as proof “the institutional reforms you sought from us are working.” That scandal surfaced when an internal police audit headed by Assistant Chief Howard Jordan discovered officers falsifying search warrant applications with false drug test results.
Fierro also said that policing is “work that by its very nature introduces moral hazards” to the people charged with performing it, including tough issues like racial profiling, and that “I see Chief Batts having these difficult conversations openly.”
Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, said the union “hasn’t had a voice in what’s going on. That’s not our role.”
However, he added, “Our members’ complaints are not about compliance, but about the effect of taking them away from the time they have to do their job.”
In 2000, Lucia said, a patrol sergeant would spend 80 to 90 percent of his time on the clock in the field; today, he said, it’s closer to 15 percent, the rest of it spent with reports and other paperwork.
In defending the department, city officials and attorneys largely relied on the January appointment of new police Chief Anthony Batts.
Dozens of police captains and lieutenants attended the hearing on Batts’ orders, underscoring a point Lindheim made that Batts was incorporating the department’s leadership more directly in its compliance efforts.
Batts emphasized he made no excuses for the department and that he shoulders responsibility for how it functions, regardless of how long he’s been in charge. However, he said, crime is down. “When I walk down the street,” he said, “people are coming up and saying, ‘You’re doing a good job. We’re moving in the right direction.'”
Batts said he is instituting accountability throughout the department by holding supervisors on every level responsible for their subordinates — from sergeants on up to the most powerful officers.
Jordan, who was acting chief until Batts took over, said he himself had even been held accountable for department failures.
Batts said three internal affairs investigations had opened this week on his orders and that he meets weekly with the department’s command staff to emphasize new policies that will bring the department into compliance with the agreement.