Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said his department's officers violated rules regarding use of tear gas on June 1, 2020. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong apologized at a press conference today for sharing false information about his department’s response to last year’s George Floyd protests. 

But the main subject of the press conference was the OPD’s finding that over 20 officers violated department policies last year when they fired tear gas and arrested protesters during the tumultuous four-day period from May 29 through June 1. 

OPD’s announcement follows news that Oakland’s civilian-led Police Commission investigators (who conduct parallel investigations into allegations of misconduct) are also recommending officers be disciplined for last year’s protest crackdown.

Armstrong declined to say how many officers are facing discipline, but he disclosed that his internal affairs investigators sustained 35 allegations of misconduct. A “sustained” finding means that evidence shows an officer violated department policy and should be punished. Armstrong said that some officers were sustained for multiple violations. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told KTVU this morning that more than two dozen officers will be disciplined.

Thirty-three of the violations occurred on June 1, 2020, when several hundred protesters gathered near the police department’s headquarters at 8th and Broadway. The group included young people who organized a march from Oakland Technical High School to downtown earlier in the day, as well as some seniors and small children with their parents. According to video, photos, and witness interviews examined by The Oaklandside, the protesters were mostly peaceful, but after several individuals in the crowd threw bottles at the police, OPD officers fired on the group with tear gas. Alameda County sheriff’s deputies also fired tear gas and rubber bullets, wounding numerous people and scattering the protesters. Some were arrested further up Broadway after they retreated.

The next day, Armstrong, who was deputy chief at the time, told the media that protesters “began to chuck rocks and bottles” and were “preparing Molotov cocktails to throw towards the officers,” and this was the reason police used force. The Oaklandside’s investigation turned up no evidence that anyone was preparing Molotov cocktails or throwing bricks that evening.

Armstrong admitted at today’s press conference that he misrepresented what happened on June 1.

“I apologize for that. We recognize that as a department we need to make sure before we push out information that we take the time to actually vet that information and make sure it’s accurate,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong said that OPD’s policies are “very clear” and that officers were not allowed to use gas the way they did on June 1. Officers face a range of punishment, from written reprimands up to suspensions. The officers who face discipline range in rank from patrol officers up to deputy chief. OPD isn’t recommending that anyone be fired for the protest-related violations.

“There was a failure on June 1,” said Armstrong.

The chief added that OPD has conducted training and changed its policies regarding tear gas and other less-lethal weapons like impact munitions (large rubber-tipped bullets). 

Among the changes is a new policy that supervisors like sergeants, lieutenants, and captains are not allowed to use tear gas weapons during a protest. Instead, supervisors must stay focused only on making sure officers under their command are acting appropriately. OPD’s “Tango Teams” which are allowed to use gas will also be smaller. And anytime squads of officers want to arm themselves with tear gas, they must first get permission from command staff.

The city is facing two federal civil rights lawsuits because of the police response to last year’s protests. The first lawsuit, brought by the activist groups Anti Police-Terror Project and Community Ready Corps—as well as over two dozen individuals hurt or arrested at the protests—alleges that OPD violated people’s rights to free speech, assembly, and protections against unlawful seizure and use of force by police. The second lawsuit was filed by several individuals who allege that OPD and other law enforcement agencies shot them with “impact munitions” and tear gas, causing severe bruising and long-term injuries.

Armstrong noted that officers at last year’s protests faced extraordinary circumstances, including roving groups of burglars who looted stores across the city and region over several nights, in addition to the murder of a federal protective service officer by right-wing extremists who used the protests as cover.

Over the four-day period, 21 OPD officers sustained injuries. Another 12 first responders were also injured, said Armstrong.

Oakland’s system of investigating police misconduct involves two parallel processes.

The Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division conducts investigations of allegations and recommends discipline to the chief. Today’s announcement by Armstrong focuses on what these investigators found, and what he will recommend in terms of discipline.

Oakland’s civilian Police Commission, which is a completely separate department of the city, also investigates allegations of misconduct through its Community Police Review Agency, or CPRA.

When OPD and CPRA agree about a case and whether an officer should be disciplined, that’s the final decision. When they disagree, this triggers a process in which three members of the Police Commission set up a special committee and consider all the evidence and reports from both OPD and CPRA, and make a final decision.

For the protest-related cases, it appears that CPRA investigators identified misconduct across several days where OPD didn’t, and the agency is recommending officers face discipline for these additional violations.

For example, according to CPRA reports presented at recent Police Commission meetings, at least 12 OPD officers were found to have violated department rules on May 31 during protests. One of the officers used a level of force on someone that could have caused death or serious injury, while other officers failed to mirandize arrestees of their rights and failed to properly care for them after they were arrested. 

OPD’s investigators, according to Armstrong, only sustained one allegation of misconduct on May 31.

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.