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Reforming the Oakland Police Department

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Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, two things shaped the Oakland Police Department.  The city had one of the highest crime rates in California, and four police officers calling themselves the “Riders” beat, robbed, and framed hundreds of residents in the flatlands of Oakland. For years the officers were praised for sweeping drugs from the rough streets of West Oakland. But in 2000 over 100 plaintiffs came forward and accused the “Riders” of kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon, and battery. “Ultimately we wound up representing 129 people who did a total of 40 years for crimes they didn’t do,” says civil rights attorney Jim Chanin.

The ensuing lawsuit put a spotlight on the department and led to a legal agreement that hoped to bring accountability into the force. But nine years have passed since the decree was signed in 2003, and the department still sees a record number of lawsuits. In the second part of this series, Joaquin Palomino looks at the past nine years for the OPD under what’s known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement.

In the spring of 2004, 64-year old Sue Taylor was driving home from her pastor’s house near Downtown Oakland. Taylor was stopped on 29th Street. She looked both ways and proceeded into the flow of traffic. Out of nowhere, a speeding vehicle sideswiped her, ripping through the front of her car. The damage done to her car would prove to be the least of her problems. 

Once Taylor regained control, she pulled into a red zone and went to the other driver to exchange insurance and contact information. Taylor says the man refused to give her his information and was getting increasingly agitated. In fear for her safety, she called the police, who gave her clear permission to leave the area.

Taylor got into her wrecked car and drove home home. She was driving up Broadway Terrace when a cop pulled behind her and switched on his sirens. Taylor pulled over and got out of her car, when she says “the police officer said, you’re a hit and run, you’re a hit and run.” Taylor told him there was a mistake. “This isn’t a hit and run, I’ve been given permission to come home.”

The argument lasted for what seemed like hours, and exhausted from being in a serious accident, Taylor says she dropped her head down. “And he literally attacked me. Jumped on me, wrenched my right arm up behind my back. He pulled me out to the sidewalk and pushed me down on top of his patrol car, banging my mouth, spilling blood down the front of me.”

Taylor was placed in custody for disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. This began a three-year legal battle, that ended with a $40,000 civil rights settlement.

Taylor’s ordeal came on the heels of the landmark Riders case, in 2003. Out of that lawsuit came what’s called the negotiated settlement agreement, or NSA. It’s a five-year, 51-point plan meant to curb police misconduct. Since the decree was signed, the department has completed 80 percent of the agreement. But at the same time, has maintained a record level of complaints.

“There’s been a lot of cases since the Negotiated Settlement Agreement was signed in 2003, and I certainly have been involved in many of them,” says civil rights attorney John Burris, who coauthored the agreement. The department was rocked by one lawsuit that exposed hundreds of illegally written search warrants. Another class action lawsuit focused on illegal strip searches. 

“There have been officer-involved shooting cases, sexual harassment cases,” and the list goes on, says Burris

All of these lawsuits have ended in hefty settlements, which over the decade have cost Oakland $60 million dollars. That’s more than San Jose and San Francisco combined. Most of these complaints land on Rashida Grainge’s desk. She directs the community group PUEBLO, and since 1990 she has filed away every grievance made against the OPD.

In 2010, Grinage compared her collection for the year to San Francisco’s. “We actually had three times the number of complaints filed against police officers than San Francisco did, even though San Francisco’s police force is three times larger than our force.”

Despite these high number of grievances, the department has made demonstrable progress on the NSA, and, by most people’s accounts, has better practices because of it.

President of the Oakland Police Officers Association Barry Donnelan says “the negotiated settlement agreement has set a series of checks and balances in place,” which has led to “a total sea change in the way we operate.”

He mentions the department’s new tracking system, which ensures that only the best officers become commanders, has entirely new training guidelines, and makes substantial improvements in how complaints and uses of force are handled.

“Today every complaint is investigated, whereas in the past some were just filed,” says Deputy Chief Sean Whent, who has been on the force for 16 years. “We do much better investigations of uses of force, even low level uses of force. We report out and track the statistics on that a lot more.”

Whent says that all of these improvements have made the department more responsible and forward thinking, and he is fairly certain that the department will complete the agreement this year.  Currently they are 80 percent finished, and most of the remaining tasks are just a few percentage points shy of being checked off the list. “We are in the ballpark at this point, so it’s really just fine tuning to get that last little bit done,” says Whent.

But in recent months there has been concern from court-appointed monitors and Federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversee the department, that reforms are stagnant. The department has already been granted two extensions, and in the last two quarterly reports they have made little to no progress. “We’re on like a fourth police chief, a third mayor. Nine years in and we are still working on it,” says attorney John Burris. “And that’s because there is a lot for resistance in the department to getting it done.”

This resistance takes many forms. For federal monitor Robert Warshaw and Judge Henderson, one of the most troubling is the department’s reluctance to punish problem officers.

“Out of 700 officers, the main problems are done by 20 or 25 officers in the whole department,” says attorney Jim Chanin. “They kill people for no reason, they beat people for no reason, they arrested people for no reason, they cost the city millions of dollars.”

Like the Riders, though, many aren’t disciplined. Last month, Judge Henderson expressed much concern with officer-involved shootings. Between 2004 and 2008, roughly 20 unarmed people were shot by the OPD. One third of them died. Still, none of the officers involved were punished. One case that’s recently drawn scrutiny involved 27-year-old Jody Woodfox.

In the early morning hours of July 25th, 2008, Jody Woodfox was driving his red Buick down Fruitvale avenue when OPD officer Hector Jimenez pulled behind him and flipped on his sirens. Instead of pulling over, Woodfox sped off. A car chase ensued, with Woodfox plowing through a number of red lights and busy intersections.

On East 17th and Fruitvale Avenue, Woodfox abruptly stopped. He emerged from his vehicle and, ignoring Jimenez’s orders to stop and show his hands, ran. Jimenez testified that in a split second, Woodfox looked over his shoulder and reached towards his waistband. In fear for his safety, Jimenez released six shots, killing Woodfox. This was the second time in four months Jimenez shot and killed a fleeing suspect.

“I was in a state of shock when I first heard the news. I just couldn’t believe that it was true,” says Kanita Vaughn, sister of Jody Woodfox. Vaughn says it is still hard for her to understand why her brother was killed. And why Jimenez was not fired or suspended after killing an unarmed Andrew Moppin Buckskin only months earlier. “When [the OPD] does something like cover one of their own because they’ve done something wrong, it makes us feel unprotected, unsafe,” says Vaughn.  “There’s just no trust.”

Shortly after slaying Woodfox, Officer Hector Jimenez was fired, but he contested the decision. Jimenez’s attorneys were able to convince a labor arbitrator to give him his job back, along with two years of full back pay, which has Vaughn baffled. “It’s almost like it’s true what they say about the system, it doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t work for the low man on the totem pole,” says Vaughn. 

Deputy Chief Sean Whent understands why police-community relations are strained in Oakland, but he says the entire force isn’t to blame. “People look at the police department and they paint it with a broad brush, you know, all cops are like that,” says Whent. “People are individuals, so if there are bad cops, we in the police department have to address that.”

Whent thinks the emphasis should be on the reforms that have been made over the years, and most importantly, the “good strides” taken since Chief Howard Jordan took the helm this past fall. The monitors are also hopeful of Jordan’s commitment to making necessary reforms to the department, but time and patience are starting to wear thin.

The department has a backlog of countless complaints from the occupy protests and Judge Henderson recently ordered investigations into officer-involved shootings. Attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin, who coauthored the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, are seriously considering preparing a motion to place the department under federal receivership – a first in the nation.

If granted, no one knows what that would look like, but officials believe it will be an expensive endeavor for the city, especially when it’s $58 million in debt.

Listen to part one of this series here