Matthew Artz, 11/10/12
Threatened with becoming the first U.S. city forced to give up control of its police department, Oakland has urged a federal judge to stop short of appointing a receiver to push through unmet reforms.
A federal receiver with the power to fire top commanders and unilaterally boost department spending “would cripple the city,” devastate its credit rating, and weaken morale among the rank-and-file, city officials said in sworn statements.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson has scheduled a Dec. 13 hearing to consider a motion for receivership brought by the attorneys who represented plaintiffs in the decade-old Riders police corruption case.
Attorneys for Oakland argued in a filing late Thursday that the reform effort would be better served by allowing the city to hire two new leaders: an assistant chief in charge of constitutional policing and a compliance director, who would be approved by Henderson and serve as an arm of the court forcing through reforms.
A receiver would actually delay compliance, attorneys for the city wrote, because “it could take months or even years … to understand the dynamics and complexities of the department.”
The city also is seeking to curtail the role of the federal monitor, who officials said had stymied progress on the reforms this year.
The Riders case involved four police officers accused of roughing up suspects and falsifying reports about recovering drugs following arrests.
To settle a civil suit brought by more than 100 plaintiffs, the city in 2003 agreed to allow federal monitoring of the police department and implement dozens of reforms aimed at improving how the department polices itself.
In a motion last month, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said the reform drive had been “a chronic failure” and that entrusting the city to fix it would lead to more constitutional violations and expensive police-related lawsuits.
The attorneys rejected the city’s proposal on Friday. They said the new high-level positions were an unnecessary expense and questioned whether the proposed compliance director would wield enough power to implement reforms without the authority to discipline the chief and his top deputies.
“Their version of a compliance director would just be more of the same,” attorney Jim Chanin said. “We want direct control of the command staff by the court or a court-appointed receiver.”
Chanin has also called for the limits on the receiver’s powers when it comes to forcing the city to make major expenditures or throwing out the union’s collective bargaining rights. However, the powers of the receiver would be up to Judge Henderson, who has said he might seek the advice of an outside expert.
Oakland police were originally expected to fully implement the 51 reform tasks four years ago. The 10 unmet tasks include procedures for how the department reports the use of force, tracks data on police stops and keeps tabs on officers who have demonstrated high-risk behaviors.
In its filing, the city argued that it is closer than ever to fully complying with all the tasks and has a plan in place to fix lingering problems with the department.
The mayor’s proposed long-term budget includes funds to increase police staffing and pay for better technology systems.
And, the city has hired a firm to recommend several reforms related to the settlement agreement.
Dispute with monitor
The city’s filing flies in the face of recent reports from the federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, a former Clinton administration deputy drug czar who has chastised department brass in recent months for backsliding on reforms.
Warshaw has been especially critical of the department’s handling of the first Occupy Oakland protest last year and its investigations of officer-involved shootings.
The city, in turn, says Warshaw shares responsibility for any setbacks this year.
In Thursday’s filing, the city says that, rather than Warshaw becoming more involved in the reform effort as Henderson ordered in January, he has ¿actually scaled back communications with city leaders.
After asking for real-time audits in May, city leaders received only a one-page report four months later assessing the department’s noncompliance with three tasks, according to the city’s filing.
Police Chief Howard Jordan wrote that Warshaw reduced communication with him beginning in July, and City Administrator Deanna Santana said she hadn’t had a one-on-one meeting with him since May.
In a separate declaration Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley questioned whether Warshaw “is providing the court with a fair and unbiased assessment” of the Police Department.
The city is asking Henderson to shift responsibility for helping shepherd reforms from the monitor to the compliance director. The monitor would still be responsible for evaluating the city’s progress on reforms.
Warshaw’s relations with key city leaders became strained earlier this year. Santana accused him of making sexual advances against her during a May meeting, according to sources.
And Jordan was scolded by Henderson recently for not replying to two emails from Warshaw because they went directly to a spam folder set up for emails relating to Occupy Oakland.
Chanin said the city had sought Warshaw for the monitoring job and that he had no problem with him. “We need to look at the city’s performance rather than monitor’s performance,” he said.
Union blames brass
In a separate filing Thursday, attorneys for the Oakland police union asked Henderson to safeguard the union’s contract and pinned the blame for the Riders scandal and ensuing scandals on city leaders.
Attorney Michael Rains wrote that the Riders case was an outgrowth of a decision by then-Mayor Jerry Brown and then police Chief Richard Word to implement a zero-tolerance anti-crime initiative that “put officers in the crosshairs of misconduct allegations with inadequate training and supervision.”
With both the Riders case and ensuing scandals, including last year’s botched response to the first Occupy protest, Rains wrote that only the rank-and-file have faced repercussions.
“The current administration thinks that its imposition of heavy-handed inconsistent discipline will appease the monitor and/or this court into believing that responsible management and leadership of the police department is at hand,” Rains wrote. “And perhaps distract the overseers from substantial management failures in other areas.”