OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – A historic fight over whether Oakland can reform its own police force began in earnest Thursday when civil rights attorneys asked a federal judge to take the unprecedented step of appointing a receiver to assure the changes are made.
The attorneys said a broken culture in the department had turned a decade-long reform effort into a “chronic failure,” endangering citizens – especially minorities – and costing the city tens of millions of dollars to settle police abuse lawsuits.
The lawyers represented more than 100 people who sued the city after four officers, who called themselves the Riders, were accused in 2000 of imposing vigilante justice in West Oakland. In a resulting settlement, Oakland had to implement a raft of reforms – which remain incomplete.
“A receiver is now required to do what city and (Oakland Police Department) officials have refused to do,” wrote John Burris, James Chanin and Julie Houk, in a 57-page motion to U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson.
“There can be little doubt that further extensions will result in more constitutional violations,” they wrote, “and cause injuries, and even death, to innocent human beings, including members of the OPD.”
Oakland officials, who have spent recent months trying to head off the prospect of federal intervention, disagreed sharply on Thursday. They said finishing the reforms was a top priority for the department, and full compliance was on the horizon.
“I think we have made significant progress,” Police Chief Howard Jordan, who assumed command last October after 23 years in the department, said in an interview. “I think we’re a much better department than we were 10 years ago.”
Jordan noted that the department has been a pioneer in some ways, such as requiring officers to record their actions on chest-mounted cameras and accepting anonymous complaints about officers to the internal affairs division.
Court-appointed receivers have run school districts, and Judge Henderson in 2005 appointed one to oversee medical care in California prisons. But no police department in the nation has ever answered to a receiver, and it is unclear exactly how such a move would play out.
Burris said in an interview that he wanted the receiver to drive home the reforms but not deploy officers to robberies and murder scenes.
Still, he said a receiver’s job in ensuring change “could have a wide-reaching impact that could stretch to other areas. We want the receiver to have the authority to determine, if necessary, the command staff of the department, including the chief.”
The potential impacts are a big concern for some City Council members, who worry that receivership could bust an already cash-strapped city budget. They said many city departments are operating with minimum funding, such as libraries, or surviving with reduced hours, such as senior centers.
A receiver, they said, would have the power to override council budget decisions. Those same libraries and senior centers might disappear to pay for the receiver, said Councilwoman Jane Brunner.
“The budget has no margin,” she said. “It has no extra revenue. you’d have to go in and cut something.”
Oakland’s reform effort has been overseen by two independent monitors appointed by the federal court, which ordered a batch of reforms in 2003. By the end of the first monitor’s seven-year tenure, the department had completed 32 reforms, leaving 22 to fulfill.
In a July report, the current monitor, Robert Warshaw, said the city needed to complete nine more reforms. They include gathering racial data on people stopped by officers and implementing a computerized early-warning system to identify officers prone to abuses.
City Attorney Barbara Parker said Thursday that the city was now in compliance with all but seven reforms, and that by December the department could be down to three.
But the civil rights attorneys said in their motion that less drastic measures than a receivership had failed. The lawyers said top city officials had “elevated political cover and petty personality conflicts above fostering the leadership and commitment necessary.”
Their motion said the police force had failed a “real life test” – clashes with Occupy protesters that led to an Iraq war veteran being critically wounded by a police beanbag, and to criticisms from a city-hired consultant.
Burris, Chanin and Houk also referred to a report by the monitor, released this week. It concluded that officers sometimes shoot at suspects even when they are not faced with a potentially lethal threat.
The attorneys said Oakland and its insurance carriers have paid out nearly $47 million to settle police abuse claims and lawsuits between 2002 and 2011. Meanwhile, the court-ordered monitors have cost the city more than $7 million.
Michael Rains, an attorney who represents the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, said rank-and-file officers agreed with the plaintiffs’ motion in one key area – that a chronic lack of leadership at the top of the department is the root cause of the failure to complete reforms.
“Right now our clients feel like they’re under siege by their own administration,” Rains said. “A mean-spirited, heavy-handed administration that has been more willing to deflect criticism and point down to the people who are dealing with the reality and vulgarity of violence on the streets of Oakland.”
Mayor Jean Quan said the city must complete the reforms not only to comply with the settlement, but “because these reforms are the right thing to do. They will strengthen the relationship between the police and community they serve, and give us a department
that is more effective and efficient at fighting Oakland crime.”
A hearing the receivership motion is scheduled for Dec. 13.