Shoshana Walter, 9/22/11
In a hearing that exposed the breadth of the problems facing Oakland, a federal judge blasted the Oakland Police Department Thursday for failing to make court-ordered changes designed to reduce police misconduct and abuse.
Before a courtroom full of city leaders and police department brass, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson highlighted a series of issues that “indicate to me the city and the department still don’t get it.”
The hearing focused on a series of reforms that the court ordered in a settlement agreement for the 2003 Riders case, in which several OPD officers were accused of planting drug evidence on suspects in East Oakland. After a multitude of missed deadlines and leadership changes, the case is now in its ninth year. It costs the city about $2 million each year to pay for a team of monitors who audit the police department.
“This is no longer business as usual,” Henderson said. “I’m not interested in listening to promises about how things are going to be.”
For the first time in the case’s history, Henderson, who has long complained of slow progress, told the groups that he would take a much stronger role in getting the department into compliance. He also asked the department and city to address several issues, including the frequency with which officers draw their weapons.
According to a quarterly report, reform monitors took a random sample of police reports of 80 incidents from the first three months of this year and found 215 officers had pointed their firearms. The majority of incidents were justified, the monitors said, but they found that in 28 percent of the cases, officers’ use of firearms was inappropriate and unnecessary. The monitors were also concerned that none of the supervisors reading over the officers’ reports raised questions about the events.
“That’s astounding,” Henderson said.
In addition, Henderson asked why an officer who was involved in a fatal shooting and subsequently terminated was allowed, through arbitration, to return to work. He also criticized the department for naming a summer sting operation, in which officers arrested parole and probation offenders, “Operation Tuneup.” The word “tuneup” is slang term, well-known among police, used to describe the beating of suspects.
Jim Chanin, a lawyer who brought the suit along with defense attorney John Burris, said the issues were indicative of a lack of cultural change at the department that has spurred distrust in the community.
“If you’re getting a gun pointed at you, and you haven’t done something to deserve it, then it’s very possible you’re going to be permanently alienated from law enforcement and less likely to trust police in the future,” he said.
Chanin also said tensions between the police chief, the mayor and the city administrator have contributed to the department’s slow progress.
“The last two weeks have gotten worse,” he told the judge. “Individually, most want to get this done,” he said, referring to the city officials responsible for implementing the terms of the settlement. “But when they get together, there is a level of dysfunction that always seems to get into politics, personal problems. These things have to be put aside.”
The city presented a united front before the judge, with police Chief Anthony Batts saying he applauded Mayor Jean Quan and the new city administrator, Deanna Santana, for being “extremely active.”
In response to the judge’s concerns, the city attorney’s office acknowledged there were still some “attitudinal and systemic issues” at the department. Rocky Lucia, a lawyer representing the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, said he believed the apparently high rate of weapon use was likely due to faulty report-writing, but that officers frequently encounter dangerous situations in Oakland that require them to be armed. Batts and Quan, in her first court appearance in the case, listed the various changes the department has made since the two began to work on the reforms.
Batts also outlined many challenges, including a 28 percent increase in homicides, a 25 percent increase in shootings, a staff depleted from 803 officers to a projected 588 in 2012, cuts to the department’s overtime budget, and the coming influx of parolees from state prisons. He said that budget cuts have also affected many of the community-based organizations that provide services to residents.
“Our demand continues to go up, and our resources are going in the opposite direction,” he said.
Quan told the judge she is working to identify what resources the department needs, and said she is personally overseeing some of the department’s remaining tasks.
“I didn’t have to come, but I wanted to come” to the court hearing, she said. “I’m committed to end this during my term as mayor.”
Henderson said he was “encouraged” by Quan’s involvement.
By the end of the hearing, Henderson seemed placated by the city and department, but Chanin and Burris said they had run out of patience. The latest extension of the agreement requires the city to be in full compliance by January 2013.
“I have no intention of extending the agreement again,” Chanin said. “Either we’ll bring a motion for appropriate sanctions, or they’ll be in compliance by then. That’s going to depend entirely on the new mayor and the new city administrator.”