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As OPD hits oversight milestone, Schaaf praises commission she was accused of interfering with

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Oakland Police Department is close to being out from under federal oversight originally intended to last just five years. 

The reform momentum was born in response to the Riders scandal exposed by a rookie officer in 2000. The Riders, made up of four former Oakland officers, were accused of falsifying reports, beating suspects, planting drugs and using intimidation to keep other officers silent. A group of 119 people who claimed to be victims of the Riders filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2003 – federal oversight was part of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement in that case. 

To say the department has since struggled to rid itself of corruption and officer misbehavior would be a gross understatement. OPD continued to make headlines for excessive force and sexual misconduct, as well as last year’s sexist and racist social media scandal. Lack of leadership continuity certainly did not help the situation. From 1999 to 2021, the department was led by a total of 12 different people, some of whom briefly filled the role as acting or interim chiefs. 

The department’s reform progress notably picked up pace when Chief of Police LeRonne L. Armstrong came aboard in Feb. 2021, aided by the work of the citizen Oakland Police Commission. 

In a press conference held Wednesday, Mayor Libby Schaaf joined by Armstrong to discuss the potential turn in tide. 

U.S. District Judge William Orrick said in a hearing earlier Wednesday that the department has made significant progress on all but one of 52 court-ordered reforms — the one outstanding reform being consistent discipline of officers. Orrick signaled he would soon issue an order that would basically put OPD on probation for a year. The Police Department could be free of federal oversight if it remains in compliance for the one-year period. 

The judge has not yet issued a final order, but Schaaf said:

“We do recognize that today was a milestone in a continual journey towards Oakland’s reforms and professionalism as a national model in policing. That’s our united commitment, as the leaders of this city, that this is not something that will ever be over.”

She continued:

“It’s a continual quest for us…to ensure that our police department is the national model, is the vanguard for progressive, professional policing.”

Armstrong said:

“At first we want to really recognize the members of the Oakland Police Department. I think this has been a commitment that all of the members of the police department has agreed to: the idea that we want to be progressive, the idea that we recognize the community’s call for change and our officers stepping up.”  

The mayor touted OPD’s “significant” changes, though she acknowledged there’s much more work ahead.

Schaaf, also joined by Oakland Police Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele and the citizen commission’s latest inspector general, Michelle Phillips, added:

“One of the very important things that was said today is that part of that order will include consultation with our police commission, and we want to express our gratitude that the professionalism of this commission, especially with the addition of our new inspector general, is a critical piece of sustainability and continued advancement in our belief that Oakland shall be the national model in policing.” 

The mayor’s praise of the police commission was striking, given that she was accused in 2019 of interfering with their work, allegedly rendering them ineffective.

Ginale Harris, who served then as vice chair, said at the time that the commission was “working with a broken wing.” Maureen Benson, a former commissioner, said she’d witnessed Schaaf interfering with commission activities. The independent citizen oversight group was plagued by inadequate budget, structural confusion and political influence.   

City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan responded with Measure SI, a charter amendment that bolstered the power of the independent police commission and created the Office of the Inspector General position – the commission was previously at the mercy of the mayor-appointed city attorney, creating a conflict of interest.

Measure S1 passed in Nov. 2020 by more than 80 percent of the vote. 

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