A federal takeover in Oakland?

October 18, 2012

Alessandro Tinonga reports on the ongoing scandal that is the Oakland police.

THE OAKLAND Police Department (OPD) faces a possible federal takeover after nine years of failing to implement court-ordered reforms mandated in the wake of the "Oakland Riders" case.

"The Riders" were four Oakland police officers who were exposed for engaging in assault, kidnapping, planting drugs and cover-ups. In November 2000, the officers faced criminal charges, and the month following, the city of Oakland faced a civil lawsuit.

In January 2003, the city agreed to settle by paying $10.9 million to the 119 plaintiffs in the case and to implement 51 reforms to prevent future abuse and misconduct by Oakland police. Nine years later, the reforms still have not been fully implemented.

On October 4, attorneys representing the plaintiffs filed a motion requesting a federal judge to appoint a receiver to ensure that the remaining changes are instituted.

"A receiver is now required to do what the city and (Oakland Police Department) officials have refused to do," wrote attorneys John Burris, James Chanin and Julie Houk in a motion to Judge Henderson. "There can be little doubt that further extensions will result in more constitutional violations...and cause injuries, and even death, to innocent human beings."

Defendants in the Oakland Riders case outside court after their criminal case in 2003
Defendants in the Oakland Riders case outside court after their criminal case in 2003

IN LOOKING back on the last nine years, it's difficult to describe attempts by the city of Oakland to reform the police as anything other than "incompetent" and "meaningless." The 51 changes required under the agreement were originally supposed to have been fully implemented by 2008, but the compliance deadline has been extended three times.

Seven of the 51 reforms have yet to be put in place, but they involve critical issues such as improving how officers report use of force, installing a computer tracking system to identify officers prone to violence and discipline problems, and gathering racial data on people stopped by officers.

What's more, it's clear that the reforms that have been implemented have done little to curb the abuses and excesses of Oakland police. Monitors that were appointed to oversee the changes ordered as a result of the Riders suit have come out with several damning reports about the OPD in the last year.

For example, a report in September 2011 found that officers were often too quick to draw their weapon when confronting suspects. In more than three-fourths of the cases in which officers appeared to have overreacted, the suspects were Black. Latinos were suspects in 17 percent of the cases, and whites accounted for only 3 percent.

Then came the crackdown on Occupy Oakland last fall, where police used what the court-appointed monitor described as "an overwhelming military-type response." To disperse demonstrators, police fired rubber bullets and gas canisters into crowds. During one Occupy Oakland demonstration on October 27 of last year, an officer fired a bean-bag round that severely injured former Marine Scott Olsen.

Such measures violated the outcome of another lawsuit filed against the city of Oakland in 2003, cops police used "nonlethal weapons" to deal with antiwar protestors at the Port of Oakland.

In many instances, cops who were accused of using excessive force during Occupy were also said to have eovered their badges so they couldn't be identified. More than 1,000 misconduct complaints were filed against the OPD during the height of Occupy.

Public outrage following the crackdown on Occupy Oakland put more focus and pressure on the courts to look into OPD practices.

In July 2012, the monitor's report had several disturbing findings. For example, it revealed that a picture of a federal judge and an elected city official had been posted on a bulletin board at police headquarters and defaced "in a manner that (internal affairs) found to be racist, insulting and inappropriate."

According the San Francisco Chronicle, "Two sources familiar with the matter said the photos were of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who is Chinese American, and U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who is African American and is overseeing the reforms."

The monitor's report also showed that a number of officers refused to activate their chest cameras to record their practices during arrests. Robert Warshaw, one of the court-appointed monitors, wrote that he was also troubled by the lack of compliance among supervising officers.

Warshaw singled out an incident in which officers entered a home they mistakenly thought was connected to an arrestee who was on probation. During the incident, one officer "pointed his duty weapon at a woman who had been sleeping with her 2-year-old child," Warshaw said.

In October 2012, another report came out following protests by the family of Alan Blueford and their supporters, which found that officers shoot suspects even when there is no "imminent threat." The report reviewed nine recent cases, including seven shootings in which three people died and a fourth was injured, and the actions of the police were called "questionable."

AFTER NINE years of failed reforms, the Oakland Police Department is obviously still prone to excessive force and racial profiling.

Federal takeover seems to be a real possibility at this point. Judge Henderson showed that he might well take such a drastic step when he put California's prison health care system under federal administration in 2005. If it happens, it would be the first time in U.S. history that a police department of a major city was placed under federal receivership, according to lawyer Jim Chanin.

Under federal receivership, a group of law enforcement experts appointed by the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California would be put in charge of making managerial and operational decisions for the department.

Such an action would be a major blow to the profile of the Oakland City Council and could potentially foul up a tight city budget. Some city council members say a receiver might, by requiring additional costs, force them to close libraries and senior centers. However, since the Riders settlement agreement, the city has spent $47 million to settle police abuse claims and lawsuits. Perhaps receivership would actually save money by curbing future legal costs for police brutality--let alone what it might do for preserving public safety.

Oakland does have budget crisis and is one of the most violent cities in the U.S. For the last 20 years, more money and resources have gone to police and business development and less for social services. Money that goes to a bloated and violence-prone police department would be better spent on education, jobs and social programs.

There is no doubt that the Oakland police are incapable of reforming themselves in any meaningful way. The fact that such an unprecedented step is even under consideration shows the extent to which the department is corrupt and out of control. A federal takeover would help to validate the assertions of victims of police abuse. Mayor Quan and the City Council would be forced onto the political defensive.

But the question remains: Will receivership itself create better conditions for the people of Oakland?

Any action that makes police more accountable is positive. But working people and the oppressed can't sit back and hope that the federal government will make police less racist and deadly. The U.S. government, its Justice Department, and the court system at every level have been among the architects in constructing a New Jim Crow system of injustice. The same forces that militarized police across the country and legitimized racial profiling can't be trusted to transform corrupt police departments into just organizations.

The pressure being put on the OPD today is the result of a decade of people trying to fight for justice--from the 119 plaintiffs who challenged the "Riders" to the family of Alan Blueford and their supporters, people need to stand up to police racism, harassment and violence. Whether the Oakland police are taken over by the Feds or not, working people in Oakland must continue their fight for justice.

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