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Oakland City Administrator says civilian oversight of police faces roadblocks

Under CC license from Flickr user vision63

The last decade has seen more than a hundred officer-involved shootings – 39 of them fatal. When one of those shootings happens, OPD’s Internal Affairs division automatically investigates. But these investigations have been widely criticized.

In 2006, the federal monitor overseeing the department’s reforms found that  Internal Affairs officers regularly fail to consider alternative reports. They don’t follow up on leads, and show bias in their reviews. An October 2012 report found that: “In most cases, the investigator appears predisposed to the position that the shooting is justified, and then subtly or overtly sets out to prove that premise.” 

Lingering questions about the credibility of Internal Affairs has motivated community advocates in Oakland to push to strengthen the Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB). They say a CPRB with real authority could make sure the department’s doing its job.

In 2011, Oakland City Council approved a measure that would give the CPRB the first look at all police complaints – and eight more investigators to handle them. The change would also free up officers currently handling complaints to go back out on the streets.

The official name for this process is “civilianization.” The reform was supposed to occur by January 1 of this year, but it’s been delayed. And that delay highlights the difficulty of reforming Oakland’s embattled police department.

Rashidah Grinage is sitting in her street-front office on Foothill Blvd in East Oakland, looking at a pile of papers. It’s early April and she’s preparing for a city council meeting in just a few days. Her glasses are on. Her face is serious. She’s frustrated.

“This police department continues to do things that are wrong because they don't have a price to pay,” she says. “In order to start addressing what's wrong, we need a paper trail. Otherwise we just have a lot of unhappy people in Oakland, and nothing changes in the department.”

Grinage works for an organization called PUEBLO – People United for a Better Life in Oakland. She’s spent two decades fighting for more civilian oversight of OPD.

“We got involved with public safety in Oakland in the 90s,” Grinage says, “because it was brought up as a concern of the folks that we represent which are largely people of color, low income, young people. They raised police abuse was one of most significant problems facing them in Oakland.”

Oakland’s relationship to the police is still uneasy. In 2005, a PUEBLO survey found that just one in ten city residents filed a complaint after a negative interaction with an officer. Grinage says that’s because people don’t trust the police to properly investigate those complaints. PUEBLO has campaigned to change that perception. Thanks in part to their efforts, the Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB) has independent investigators and the power to subpoena officers. But it still handles fewer than 100 cases a year, just a fraction of what Internal Affairs receives. Grinagesasy that fact helps explain why the department has been slow to reform.

“After this many mayors, and this many city administrators, and this many city police chiefs, you get the idea this department is a law unto itself,” she says.

Still, the city council voted for reform more than a year ago. Grinage is heading to the meeting to find out why it hasn’t happened yet.

By 9pm on April 16, the Oakland City Council has concluded most of its agenda items. The studious children have been congratulated. The medical cannabis emergency has been declared. By the time the clerk announces Agenda Item 12, about the CPRB, more than half the seats are empty. RashidahGrinage is still there though: in the middle row, flanked by PUEBLO supporters.

In a minute, Oakland City Administrator Deanna Santana will update the council on the status of the transition to civilian oversight. As the highest ranking official in Oakland – and, at nearly $300,000 a year, the highest paid – Santana’s job is quite simply, to run the city. What the council votes for, she’s supposed to make happen. So ultimately, civilianization is her responsibility.

She begins her report, and for almost ten minutes, runs through a list of roadblocks her office is facing. There are objections from the police union – they say they have the right to bargain over more oversight – just as they would salaries or benefits. Then there’s the requirement to comply with the 57 police reforms mandated in the wake of the Riders case, the police scandal that got OPD a court order to reform or face a federal takeover.

In December, the judge overseeing OPD appointed someone called a Compliance Director to help enact those reforms. His name is Thomas Frazier, and he now has final say over everything that happens in the Department. Santana says that’s another hurdle. She tells the council that Oakland can’t do anything to change civilian oversight until he gives the okay.

Watching from her seat, RashidahGrinage purses her lips and shakes her head. When Santana finishes, she stands up.

“Madam City Administrator, if I might,” she begins, and then proceeds to tell Santana says that the obstacles she listed aren’t really obstacles. Grinage says federal overseers have no problem with civilianization – and when I speak with one of the attorneys involved in the Riders case later, he confirms this. Grinage also disputes that the Police Officers Association gets to have a saying: “This is not bargainable. Nobody’s being laid off, nobody’s losing salary.” 

But Grinage’s big point is this: that as city administrator, it’s Santana’s job to supervise the police. And she hasn’t done that.

“Ms. Santana, furthermore, you should be the compliance director,” Grinage says. “You are the supervisor of the police chief. It is your responsibility to make sure this department is in compliance.”

The bell dings to indicate her time is up, but Grinage continues: “Council, please do your job, and tell administrator to get this done by a date certain, and show evidence, if any exists, as to why that cannot be the case. Thank you very much.”

The sparse crowd applauds.

After Grinage speaks, the council members all voice their support. They want what they voted for to happen. The meeting ends with a resolution to reset the deadline to October 15. As I left, though, I still had questions. First I called David Downing, the head of OPD’s Internal Affairs Division. He says the Police Officers Association agrees with civilianizing the complaint process in principle.

“Do we want it to occur?” he says, “Yeah. Do we want to have it rapidly? No, I'd rather have it correctly.”

Downing says there are still a lot of details to work out, and the POA does want to bargain them. For example: Where will the CPRB be housed? How will its investigators be trained?

“We’re just getting rolling on this,” Downing says, laughing. 

There was one person left to ask about all this.

Deanna Santana agreed to meet with me in her office on the third floor of City Hall, accompanied by Karen Boyd, the public relations official, and Patrick Caceres, director of the CPRB.

“There's a lot of work to do,” she says. “There has already been an incredible amount of work completed. We're certainly gonna do everything we can do to make it happen.”

Once we start talking, Santana restates what she thinks are the two biggest obstacles to increasing civilian oversight: approval from the Police Officers’ Association, and approval from the Compliance Director.

“The CD has not yet formally approved,” she says, “and I still need to understand how he will issue formal approvals – in writing or over the phone. More meetings need to occur.”

The city administrator’s critics say these are all stalling tactics. Santana has interfered with police reform before. In 2012, she tried to redact a report that criticized OPD’s response to the Occupy protests, a response written by none other than Compliance Director Thomas Frazier himself.

Santana is adamant that she’s not interfering with these reforms. She says her department is doing all it can under tough circumstances.

“This is a very hard working organization,” she says. “It's an organization that is at its lowest staffing levels. They're highly committed but also highly burdened. This is not for lack of trying.”

Oakland’s problems with its police go back decades. And so far, no mayor or city administrator or outside monitor has been able to solve them. Officials are hopeful that this year will be different, and reforming the police complaint process is a promising start. But it’s also a window into the challenges that lie ahead.