For years, activists have been pushing for a community-led police commission to keep tabs on the Oakland Police Department. The Department’s involvement in a recent sexual misconduct scandal has brought the need for increased oversight into sharp focus.
If voters approve Measure LL on Election Day, it would create a police commission led by Oakland residents with the power to impose officer discipline, recommend policy, and fire or hire the police chief. Some activists see it as groundbreaking, but others think it’s a watered down compromise that won’t reign in misconduct.
Oakland’s current police oversight
Activist Rashidah Grinage has been trying to bring more accountability to the Oakland Police Department for decades. For her, it’s personal. In 1993, her husband and son were killed by officers during a confrontation over a dog.
“So, that's what got me involved in understanding that police could essentially do anything, and walk, and not suffer consequences,” Grinage says.
She could have filed a complaint with the Citizen Police Review Board - or the CPRB. That’s OPD’s current oversight agency. But at the time, few people knew the CPRB even existed. And if officers didn’t want to show up for complaint hearings against them, they didn’t have to.
“So essentially, it was a useless creation, it was meant to appease anger and outrage, but it offered absolutely nothing in the way of substance,” Grinage explains.
Since then, the CPRB has been given more authority to investigate complaints. It now has civilian investigators, and the power to make officers attend hearings. But it’s still understaffed and underfunded. And the board can only recommend discipline of individual officers. If the chief disagrees, the city administrator calls the shots.
“What we're trying to do now is remedy one of the ongoing defects that can only be remedied through the ballot,” Gringe says.
Grinage’s activism helped inspire Measure LL, a ballot proposal that would create a police commission run by Oakland residents. If it passes, the commission would have the authority to impose discipline. The new police commission would also have the power to recommend policy, and hire or fire the police chief. Supporters say it would create one of the strongest police commissions in the country.
“We think passing Measure LL will be transformative, because it takes the power from a city official and gives it to a group of residents in Oakland -- that is big,” Grinage says.
Activists fight for a people’s police commission
A police commission run by community members with authority to punish officers sounds a lot like what anti-police brutality activists have been demanding across the country. But it’s still been controversial among police reform advocates. When the Oakland City Council voted to send Measure LL to the ballot this year, people jeered.
Community member Ann Janks was disappointed. People were just learning about the Oakland Police sexual misconduct scandal, and the general public seemed to have a rare appetite for a far-reaching police watchdog.
“Because of the scandal, there was a unique moment, and you are on the verge of throwing it away,” Janks said at the meeting.
One after another, for over two hours, people demanded a police commission where all members would be appointed by the people. Instead, Measure LL would let three out of seven commissioners be appointed by the mayor. Activist Vanessa Riles said she didn’t trust Mayor Libby Schaaf.
“When the sex scandal - let’s just call it rape - broke, the mayor said, ‘What am I doing, running a frat house?’ As if...that were how she’d run a frat house,” Riles said. “And that is not the person you want to appoint three members of the commission.”
Groundbreaking legislation mixed with compromise
Councilmember Dan Kalb co-wrote Measure LL, and said it is groundbreaking. The mayor gets her say, but more than half of the commission will be chosen by a panel of community members.
“This is and will be the only police commission in the country that has less of a majority coming from your chief elected office, that’s a big deal,” Kalb said. “I realize people are hissing because they want everything, and I get that, I understand that.”
In an earlier proposal, Kalb tried to get rid of the police union’s right to appeal officer discipline with an arbitrator.
But Oaklands’ biggest city employee unions joined the police union and opposed limiting the power of officers to appeal decisions about discipline.
“There was no acceptance by some people,” Kalb said. So, in order to get Measure LL passed, Kalb compromised.
“But the core stuff, the powers, the authority, is still there,” he says.
Some activists demand stronger oversight
The police union and other unions withdrew their opposition. Now the only opponents to Measure LL are skeptical activists, like Cat Brooks.
“Proponents say, ‘This is the most radical police commission in the country,’” Brooks says. “That might be true, but all the rest of them suck.”
Brooks doesn’t think San Francisco’s police commission has made an impact. In San Francisco, police commissioners can already hire and fire police chiefs.
“It’s buffoonery, and it’s modelled after that,” Brooks says. “The way they responded to the community demanding Greg Suhr be fired was just absolute non-responsiveness to community demands.”
A first step
Longtime activist Rashidah Grinage says Measure LL isn’t perfect. If it were up to her, all commissioners would be appointed by community members and the union wouldn’t be able to appeal discipline. But Grinage still says Measure LL is a big first step. More reforms can be made after it passes.
“It will require vigilance. It will require observing how they function, what's working, what isn't working, what needs to be changed,” Grinage says. “What can be changed through ordinance without going back to the voters, what might we need to go back to the voters to fix.”
Grinage says a police commission run by civilians is better than no commission at all.
“So what we're saying is, ‘Give it a chance to make a difference.’ We're not guaranteeing you that it's going to solve every problem that we have, and certainly not in the first year or two,” Grinage says. “But it's worth trying and one thing is for sure, it can’t get any worse.”
If Measure LL passes, the city will have a new police commission set up by the end of next year. If it doesn’t, the Citizen Police Review Board stays in place.