Oakland Police Face Federal Takeover Due To Excessive Force

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SAN FRANCISCO — Mayor Jean Quan vowed Wednesday to quickly reform the scandal-plagued Oakland Police Department after a frustrated judge threatened a federal takeover if it fails to quickly make good on changes agreed to nine years ago.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said he “remains in disbelief” that the department has failed to adopt the reforms.

Henderson’s frustration with the pace of improvements was evident throughout a scathing five-page ruling issued Tuesday.

“This department finds itself woefully behind its peers around the state and nation,” he wrote.

In his ruling, Henderson increased the oversight authority of a court-appointed monitor. Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan must now consult with the monitor before making important department decisions such as promoting and disciplining officers and changing policing policy and tactics.

Henderson ordered court hearings if city officials disagreed with the monitor’s recommendations.

Quan and Jordan said a federal takeover wouldn’t be necessary because Oakland’s new leadership has made compliance with the settlement a priority.

“We believe that the expertise of the monitor, coupled with the new leadership in the Police Department and the city administrator’s (office) and my commitment to further incorporate the requirements of the negotiated settlement agreement into OPD’s culture, will move Oakland into compliance as quickly as possible,” Quan said in a prepared statement.

The mayor, police chief, city manager and city attorney have all been in their posts for less than two years.

“The Oakland Police Department belongs to the community,” Jordan said. “The path forward will be guided by an actionable plan.”

Henderson said he will consider proceedings to appoint a federal receiver to run the department if the monitor submits a report this summer showing little improvement.

The judge appointed a monitor in 2003 to ensure the city complied with terms of a $10.5 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by victims of a notorious group of police officers known as “The Riders.”

The group was accused of beating and framing suspects in the West Oakland area for years. One officer was acquitted at trial and criminal charges against two former officers were dismissed after two trials ended in hung juries. A fourth former officer remains a fugitive who disappeared after charged were filed in 2000.

The current monitor, Robert Warshaw, was appointed in 2010 and oversees the settlement with a staff of seven people.

The settlement included 51 specific reforms the department agreed to make within five years. Henderson noted Tuesday that he’s extended the compliance deadline by years to little effect.

“Defendants have achieved full compliance with just over half of those tasks and, worse yet, have fallen in and out of compliance on some tasks, thus indicating a lack of sustainability,” Henderson wrote. “The outstanding tasks are not minor formalities; instead, they are significant areas that go to the heart of any police department, including how internal affairs investigations are completed, how officers are supervised, and the use and reporting of force.”

The judge was responding to a monitor’s report submitted earlier this month that included “serious concerns” about the department’s handling of the so-called Occupy Oakland protests. The monitor told the judge that officers’ actions during the Occupy protests put even the small improvements made by the department in jeopardy.

“We were, in some instances, satisfied with the performance of the department; yet in others, we were thoroughly dismayed by what we observed,” Warshaw wrote. “I cannot overstate our concern that although progress on compliance has been slow, even those advancements may have been put in doubt in the face of these events.”

The monitor said the department’s response to the Occupy protests will help determine whether police are making progress.

The mayor and police chief announced in December they were hiring an independent investigator to evaluate claims police used excessive force and improper tactics responding to the protests, which included several uses of tear gas, rubber bullets and “flash-bang” grenades on protesters.

One protester was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a flash grenade. At least one officer was demoted from lieutenant to sergeant for failing to report a subordinate blacking out his name tag.

Warshaw promised the judge a more in-depth analysis of the Occupy protests when he submits his next report sometime in July. Henderson said the results of that report may prompt him to take the extremely rare step of placing the department in a federal receivership, stripping Oakland of control of its police.

Henderson took the same extraordinary step with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s medical health care system. A receiver was appointed in 2006 to run the prison department’s health care system after Henderson said CDCR failed to comply with a settlement agreement to provide adequate care to inmates. The court-appointed receiver, J. Clark Kelso, remains in charge of the health care system.

The mayor conceded Oakland police were moving too slowly to reform the department. But Quan said she and the new leaders will move Oakland into compliance as quickly as possible.

However, as the court has explained time and time again, words and promises are not enough, Henderson said.

“Indeed, each time a previous new mayor or city administrator or chief of police has come on board, the court was reassured that the individual was strongly committed to reforming the Oakland Police Department, and that a change in administration and leadership was all that was necessary to push the city into full compliance,” the judge wrote.

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