Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong speaking after his swearing-in ceremony at McClymonds High School on Feb. 8, 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

High-profile activists, celebrities, and elected officials—including many in Oakland—have been reacting to the Derek Chauvin trial verdict with public statements attempting to make sense of the moment. Some say it represents a massive shift in police accountability. Others say it does little to undo systemic racism in policing.

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong weighed in as well, at a press conference on Wednesday, calling the jury’s decision to convict the former Minneapolis police officer of murder a “real meaningful change” in the criminal justice system.

Armstrong, a 22-year veteran of the department who was appointed chief in February, took the opportunity to also present his vision for policing in Oakland, emphasizing recent department reforms that he believes have greatly improved OPD’s relationship with Oakland communities.

“I think change has already begun at the Oakland Police Department,” said Armstrong.

He pointed to data showing that OPD carried out 63% fewer traffic stops of Black people in 2019 compared to 2016. “If you can touch less people, there’s less opportunity to have force encounters,” he said. “There’s less opportunity for misconduct to occur.”

Last year, spurred by the killing of George Floyd, Oakland’s Police Commission and City Council banned officers from using carotid holds and choke holds that cut off the blood and oxygen to people’s brains. Armstrong said he supports the ban because it helps prevent situations that can lead to a “tragic outcome.”

Oakland also enacted a policy in 2019 that restricts officers from immediately asking people they stop if they’re on probation or parole in order to be able to search them without a warrant, a practice many in the community viewed as demeaning and invasive. OPD initially fought the policy, but acquiesced when it passed City Council.

A U.S. District Court Judge imposed a list of reforms on OPD in 2003 following the Riders scandal, in which a group of West Oakland officers were exposed for beating people and planting drugs on them. Those reforms included making sure misconduct investigations are completed quickly, and ensuring officers are properly supervised. The settlement agreement also placed an independent monitor over the department to track its progress. Asked by a reporter about the federal court-ordered reforms, Armstrong said OPD has learned a lot from outside authorities examining their policies and procedures.

The department, he said, has also benefited from community engagement and civilian oversight. “We have some of the most progressive policies in the country, and those were created in partnership with the police commission and the community,” he said.

But is OPD a model of police reform that other cities could look to?

Civil rights attorney John Burris has been investigating Oakland over police brutality and bias since the 1970s. He told The Oaklandside that, in many respects, the department has made progress. OPD officers no longer kill as many people in the line of duty as they used to, said Burris, and fewer overall traffic stops in Oakland have led to a significant reduction in encounters between people of color and the police. Burris said he now spends more time filing lawsuits against suburban departments in Contra Costa County or in litigation against the Vallejo Police Department, than he does working on police-misconduct cases in Oakland. Burris also acknowledged that OPD commanders today are more willing to listen and learn than they were in the past. The department, he said, has many progressive policies on paper.

But OPD still has room to improve, said Burris, and the danger that it will backslide on reforms is ever present.

“That’s been the process that’s taken place down through the years,” said Burris. “They get into compliance with reforms, whether it’s on use of force, or something else, and then they fall out of compliance.”

Burris pointed to the department’s past troubles with underreporting officer  use-of-force incidents. Between 2013 and 2017, the department claimed these incidents were dropping dramatically, a sign of less brutal methods and greater community trust. But the numbers weren’t accurate: The inspector general, the department’s internal watchdog, found many officers were failing to report when they used a hand strike, baton, or pointed a firearm at someone, especially Black people. 

“I do think, in terms of the policies they have in place, other departments can learn from them,” said Burris. “The issue is whether those policies are being followed all the time.”

Oakland has been debating how to reform its police department for decades. This past year, the debate shifted away from that focus as many residents embraced a call to “defund” the police, reduce the role of OPD in addressing community problems, and grow social services to address root causes of violence and crime.

“All of us would like to live in communities where there isn’t a role for police,” Armstrong said about the call to “defund” policing. “Unfortunately it’s not our reality in Oakland in its current state. When you have 45 homicides and a 100% increase in shootings, it says there’s a need for law enforcement to intervene and remove people who want to continue to victimize our community.”

“The chief is right in one sense. As long as racialized capitalism exists, there will always be an element of predation on people because folks are trying to get what they don’t have,” said District 3 City Councilmember Carroll Fife. “And we’re going to have to address that.” 

Fife doesn’t believe that more police will necessarily result in safer conditions for Oakland residents, and has voted in favor of policies that would reduce the roles police play in responding to emergencies. Still, while she doesn’t think OPD should be viewed as a model of reform, she said “we have to acknowledge they’re not the same department they were ten years ago.”

As to what caused the change, Fife said she doesn’t think it was anything internal to OPD. Instead, Fife said external pressure from activists, watchdog groups, civil rights attorneys, a federal judge, a court-appointed police monitor, and elected officials are responsible for “pushing” the department to improve.

“It’s really a testament to organizing in Oakland.”

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.