Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Four years ago, Oakland voters approved the creation of a civilian police commission with the power to fire the police chief, make and review a range of police policies, and discipline officers for serious misconduct, including the use of deadly force, lying, and sexual assault. Now, a new measure that will strengthen that commission is winning by a large margin. 

According to the latest vote count, Measure S1 is passing with 81% of the vote.

Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability, an activist group that led the campaign to create the commission in 2016 and helped write the ballot measure this year, said she’s not surprised by the strong show of support. No groups opposed Measure S1, not even the Oakland Police Officers Association, the union that represents Oakland officers.

“We spent less than $5,000 on the campaign, mostly on lawn signs,” said Grinage.

The Oakland Police Officers Association didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Measure S1 was placed on the ballot by the City Council largely to resolve disputes that have hampered the Police Commission since its inception: The commission’s launch in 2017 was clumsy, and the commissioners were not given the resources they needed by the city. Training sessions for the new commissioners were delayed and the board got off to a slow start. The commission clashed with other city officials, including Oakland’s city administrator and city attorney, over what powers they thought they should be able to exercise.

The commission wanted its own attorney, rather than a lawyer appointed by the city attorney, because they felt there was a conflict of interest in having the city attorney’s office represent the commission while simultaneously defending the police department in lawsuits alleging police misconduct or excessive force. The commissioners also wanted to directly supervise a new key position, the inspector general, who will study police policies and recommend changes. Under the city attorney and city administrator’s interpretations of Measure LL, the 2016 charter change that created the commission, the inspector general reported to the city administrator, not the commission.

Grinage said S1 is a big expansion of the Police Commission’s authority and resources because it places the commission’s attorney and inspector general under the commission’s supervision.

“I’m glad it’s passing,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb, one of the sponsors who helped put Measure S1 on the ballot. “I hope they start in January to do a nationwide search for a really high-level inspector general who can help them move forward on policies and research.”

Kalb said another important change under S1 is that the inspector won’t be limited to researching and making policy recommendations on a narrow list of topics, as was spelled out in the 2016 ballot measure that created the commission. Now, the IG can look into and make recommendations about anything that’s currently subject to the department’s Negotiated Settlement Agreement, or NSA.

The NSA was the court settlement the Oakland police agreed to in 2003 after they were sued by victims of a squad of officers known as the “Riders” who planted drugs, lied in reports, and assaulted people. The Oakland police have been under federal court oversight since then, and the NSA is a roadmap of reforms the department must accomplish. The NSA includes over 50 reforms in areas like racial profiling, use of force, officer discipline, and supervision.

Larry White, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability who helped draft Measure S1, said he thinks the Police Commission is now empowered to help the Oakland Police Department actually get out from under federal court oversight.

“The two judges that have been in charge of the NSA have always been aware and concerned about what would happen if the NSA ended. What we did is we created a structure that can take over from the NSA,” said White. “That’s really important.”

Grinage said there’s another provision in Measure S1 that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but it will make Oakland’s Police Commission even stronger. If an investigation of a complaint regarding a “Level 1” use of force (like a fatal shooting) or a case involving sexual misconduct or dishonesty by an officer drags on for more than 250 days, the commission now has the power to take over the case and convene a “discipline committee” made up of several commissioners who will decide whether or not the officer violated city policy. Currently, the commission has to wait until OPD’s internal affairs and the commission’s Community Police Review Agency are finished with their investigations to take this action, and the commission can only do so if there’s a disagreement between the findings of OPD’s investigation and the Community Police Review Agency’s.

“Frankly I’m very surprised OPOA didn’t object to that,” said Grinage about the police union. “Maybe they didn’t notice it.”

Measure S1 almost didn’t appear on the ballot. Late in the process of drafting it, members of the Coalition for Police Accountability and other activists were concerned when someone in the city, possibly the city administrator, OPD, or city attorney’s office, wrote into a draft of the measure a section that would have given the police chief the right to suspend the commission’s policymaking authority under “exigent circumstances,” or emergencies.

“The initial provision was actually a martial law provision,” said White, referring to a situation where military or police forces can override civilian leaders. “We never found out who was behind this.”

The proposal was ultimately struck from the measure before the council voted to place it on the ballot.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, another sponsor of the measure, said “this is an important sign about how united Oakland voters are on the crucial issue of police accountability.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.