The Oakland Police Department has made considerable progress reforming itself, according to civil rights attorneys who are part of the federal court oversight effort. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Civil rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin signaled earlier this week that they are preparing to begin talks with city of Oakland officials to bring an end to the Oakland Police Department’s federal court oversight program, which has been in place for 18 years and was the result of the “Riders” case in which a squad of West Oakland cops brutalized and planted drugs on dozens of people. 

Burris and Chanin, who represent victims of the Riders, argue the Oakland Police Department is a far better police agency than it was 20 years ago. Although the department remains out of compliance with five of 52 reform tasks related to the negotiated settlement agreement, the attorneys wrote that “it is now time to run through the finish line and bring OPD into full and final compliance.” 

A hearing is scheduled on Sept. 1 before U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick, where the first steps toward a possible resolution of the case will be discussed. In advance of this, The Oaklandside gathered reactions from people who have closely watched the oversight process or worked on the reforms over the years. 

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong

Appointed chief six months ago, Armstrong said this week that he is “cautiously optimistic” and that while it is great the department’s work is being recognized by the plaintiff attorneys, “we have not crossed the finish line.” 

“We are doing the things we were asked to do by the federal monitor as well as our police commission. We recognize that oversight is important and we also recognize that this is a different department. I’m doing everything I can to ensure that we are achieving a cultural change that the court asked for, and [which] I believe is important for law enforcement not just in Oakland, but across the country. We can be a model of what it looks like to reform a police department and come up with progressive policing policies and practices, and that is being highlighted in some of the documents you’ve seen.” 

Armstrong added that he thinks the city is capable of holding OPD to higher standards once the court-appointed monitoring team is gone. “I believe [the civilian police commission] is strong enough to hold us accountable. I think they have tremendous power and authority to bring forth the department and the chief when there is backsliding. They’ve shown their willingness to use that power and authority, and from that perspective we are prepared.”

Rashidah Grinage, Coalition for Police Accountability 

Grinage, who has been involved in police reform efforts since the mid-1990s, said she believes the department has made enough progress that the oversight program could come to an end, but only after a “period of probation where plaintiffs’ attorneys continue to observe and ensure ongoing progress and compliance.”

“What should be recognized is that if it were not for the Coalition for Police Accountability, we would not have a viable ‘successor’ agency: the Police Commission. It was our realization that Oakland would need an ongoing, local institution to ensure that OPD would not backslide after the NSA was ended. That precipitated the work that led to Measure LL in 2016. Had we not done that work, Oakland would be unable to ensure that the 20 year investment in police reform would be sustainable and that we would have a way to hold OPD accountable for constitutional and equitable policing.” 

Oakland Police Commission Chair Regina Jackson

“The latest filing says that Chief Armstrong has exhibited strong leadership, which I absolutely know,” said Jackson, who was appointed to the Police Commission in 2017 and is also the President and CEO of the East Oakland Youth Development Center. 

“The department needs to sustain reform and cultural change, which is the critical piece of getting out of the NSA. What I like about John and Jim, their underlying lawsuit is what led to the NSA. They clearly agreed that the strong leadership coming out of OPD is a healthy sign. I recognize we need a year of sustainability. I hope that it will serve as a new opportunity for OPD to demonstrate that it can self-govern and hold itself to account. 

“The on-boarding of the inspector general [a new position approved by voters] will be critical. We are looking at, down the road, possibly bringing [OPD’s Internal Affairs Division, which investigates police misconduct] into the Community Police Review Agency. There are a lot of shifts speaking to a new evolution of OPD, with a lot of community engagement for the benefit of our broader community. I’m loving where we are. We’ve got a lot more work to do.” 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf 

“I am deeply grateful to Jim Chanin and John Burris for their tireless advocacy to improve not just the Oakland Police Department but policing for the entire country. It was heartening to read John Burris’ statement that Oakland is now a national model. It has come so far, but a national model is not good enough. We know that policing is a deeply divisive and polarizing issue in this moment, as it should be. So Oakland is dedicated to not just being the best but being what this community wants. That’s a complicated issue. There are many desires. There are many versions of safety. But I really want to commend Chief Armstrong for hearing and holding all of those visions of what safety means for Oaklanders.

“Oversight should never go away from our community and I know this community will never stop holding this city and this department accountable for decent behavior. Having our police commission in place is a very important piece of that accountability and sustainability puzzle. I know that part of what is also giving plaintiff’s counsel confidence that these reforms are sustainable is the fabulous leadership of our police commission, particularly from its chair Regina Jackson. I am very thankful to all of these partners that have pushed, that have persisted, that continue to demand safety and justice.” 

Attorney Dan Siegel 

“I was surprised to see that the attorneys for the plaintiffs are promoting a conclusion to the settlement agreement,” said Siegel, a civil rights attorney who has sued OPD over the years for civil rights violations and currently represents people who were harmed during last year’s George Floyd protests when OPD and other police agencies used tear gas and less-lethal weapons to disperse crowds. 

“I don’t really understand why they are doing that. Seems to me that’s obviously the city’s position, but I hope that ultimately the court is going to look at what the monitors have to say. Everyone seems to have agreed historically that the monitors are in charge and it seems odd the plaintiff lawyers would unite with the city on this issue. I don’t think the problems have been resolved.” 

“I agree that Chief Armstrong seems like, finally, a good pick. But realistically, he’s only been there six months. The agreement and approach to monitoring has required not only that the city implement change and demonstrate over time that they have become permanent. I don’t think they are there, just like I don’t think that Armstrong’s leadership is completely established.” 

The Oaklandside also reached out to attorneys representing the Oakland Police Officers Association and the police union president but did not hear back from them before publication.Oa

David DeBolt reports on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.