Justin Berton, 11/18/12
Three weeks before a federal judge will hear arguments over whether Oakland should hand over its Police Department to federal authorities, attorneys for one of the parties filed a searing critique against the law enforcement agency.
The lawyers said the department’s top brass was ineffective and accused commanders of leading the public on as they failed to install reforms mandated by a civil rights lawsuit.
That wasn’t all.
They asserted that internal affairs officers had carried out “dishonest” investigations that led to unjust results. And they characterized the relationship between cops and residents as “more negative than ever.”
The authors of the stark analysis? The police officers union.
At a time when city attorneys have gone all out to defend the department and stave off a federal receiver, the union’s declaration sought to distance the rank and file from the department’s command staff.
Since 2003, the department has attempted to institute 51 reforms that were required in a civil settlement after four officers, who called themselves the Riders, were accused of beating and framing suspects in West Oakland. The East Bay attorneys for more than 100 of the victims, John Burris and James Chanin, recently filed a motion that asked a federal judge to appoint a receiver to take over the department, which has failed to implement nine of the required reforms.
Now, in a case of unusual bedfellows, police officers appeared to side with the two attorneys, who have long described the Police Department as incompetent.
‘Looking for leadership’
“The common denominator between us and the plaintiffs’ attorneys,” said Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, “is that we’re both looking for leadership from the city and we’re not finding it. We never made the argument we want a federal receiver – that’s up to the learned judge to make the call – but we were honest. Our responsibility is to the members and the citizens.”
Sgt. Chris Bolton, chief of staff for Police Chief Howard Jordan, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the union’s legal filing in light of the ongoing court proceedings.
To some legal experts and criminologists who have followed the federal case, the condemnation was a routine posture by a labor union – a public swipe at management designed to put pressure on department executives.
To others, it was a desperate plea to save the union in the face of uncertainty. If a federal receiver is appointed to run the department, the appointee may have control over discipline hearings, staffing numbers, promotions and even contractual wages and benefits.
Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley criminologist, said that despite the notion of the “thin blue line” where all those in uniform share an allegiance, the union was positioning itself for a future with a receiver who may make drastic personnel changes.
“What they’re really saying here is, ‘If someone has to pay – them first,’ ” Zimring said of the union.
Failure to train
In the 25-page document, union lawyers portray officers as caught between city officials who are eager to adopt aggressive policing strategies and the commanders who fail to properly train them on how to execute those plans.
In 2000, then-Mayor Jerry Brown and Chief Richard Word adopted a “zero-tolerance” drug- and crime-fighting plan called “Project SANE.”
According to union attorneys, the initiative pushed young, under-trained officers to conduct raids and make mass arrests. Yet when allegations of misconduct by four officers led to the Riders scandal, the union said, “those who were uniquely responsible for the ‘leadership decision’ engaged in ‘political cover’ and were nowhere to be found.”
More than 10 years later, union members said, history repeated itself during the Occupy Oakland conflicts.
Members viewed Chief Jordan’s announcement last month that 44 officers would be disciplined for Occupy-related incidents as the latest case of passing the blame.
According to union attorneys, despite an independent report that criticized Jordan’s command staff for planning missteps, only one probationary lieutenant was demoted. The remaining reprimands were issued to officers ranked sergeant and below, the lawyers said.
Michael Rains, the union’s attorney, said pressure to discipline officers was running high in light of a possible federal takeover.
In their filing, union attorneys said internal affairs investigations had led to trumped-up charges against officers. In the past six years, of the 11 police officers facing dismissal, seven were reinstated by independent arbitrators.
Now, with U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson scheduled to hear arguments Dec. 13, Rains said police leaders are making a run to discipline officers to show the progress Henderson has demanded.
Rains said he thought it likely that the judge would agree with the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ request to replace the current management team with a federal receiver.
“We’re tired that the current management is pointing the finger exclusively downward,” Rains said. “It won’t stop with this group, so we’ll have to see if it will stop with another group.”