For the first time since a sweeping state Supreme Court decision forced the Oakland Citizens’ Police Review Board to reinvent itself, the board will tonight consider a complaint lodged against an Oakland police officer.
However, all of the discussions regarding the allegations will take place behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny and the glare of the media spotlight. In addition, all of the participants will be required to sign confidentiality agreements.
In August, the state Supreme Court ruled police misconduct may not be investigated publicly. After attorneys representing the Oakland Police Officers Association threatened to take the city to court, the nine-member review board suspended hearings and revised administrative procedures.
As a result, the public does not know the names of the officer or officers involved or even the nature of the complaint, a significant change for the board, which has been meeting for 26 years.
In addition, witnesses will be brought into the hearingroom one at a time, and asked to leave after they have completed their testimony. Otherwise, the board will function much as it had before the ruling, with representatives for the officer and the complainant allowed to confront each other.
Joyce Hicks, the review board’s executive director, said she was confident the new procedures were in line with the court ruling, which stemmed from a 2003 lawsuit filed by the San Diego Union Tribune that sought information from the San Diego County’s Civil Service Commission about disciplinary actions against a deputy.
Despite the board’s lack of transparency, which Hicks said was a “serious loss” to the public, it will maintain civilian oversight of the Oakland Police Department.
“It will provide citizens with another alternative to file complaints against officers,” Hicks said.
Todd Simonson, an attorney for the police union, said he was satisfied with the changes made by the review board and endorsed by the Oakland City Council, but would wait and see how the new rules function in practice before making a final decision.
Police unions have praised the ruling for defending officers’ privacy, protecting them from frivolous lawsuits. The review board hearings often gave plaintiffs an advantage before filing suit against officers, union officials said.
Rashidah Grinage, a member of People United for a Better Oakland, said she and other police reform advocates would continue to work to reverse the court decision, which she said curbs the public’s ability to root out police corruption and hold officers accountable for wrongdoing.
Grinage said she was disappointed Oakland’s new procedures did not allow the nature of the complaint to be disclosed to the public, and said she would work to reverse that regulation.
“We’re going to go slow,” Grinage said. “We’ll see how it works.”
The court ruling also prompted the Berkeley Police Review Commission to suspend its hearings after the Berkeley Police Association renewed its lawsuit against the city over the hearings.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith is expected to rule by mid-February on the Berkeley police union’s request that the review commission’s hearings be closed to the public and records kept private.