Credit: Amir Aziz

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Oakland police may be nearing the end of federal oversight, but a judge at a Wednesday afternoon court hearing told police officials “we are still in the tunnel and there’s a way to travel before we get out.” 

U.S. District Judge William Orrick, who along with a federal monitor oversees the Oakland Police Department, praised police Chief LeRonne Armstrong and other department leaders for  recent progress in achieving court-mandated reforms. 

“The light at the end of the tunnel is closer and brighter than it has been at any time since I’ve been sitting on the case,” said Orrick, who took over in 2017 after U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson retired. “That’s the result of the ongoing commitment of every important player in the process.” 

However, “we are still in the tunnel and there’s a way to travel before we get out,” the judge said, referring to a handful of uncompleted tasks. On a Zoom call with Armstrong, Mayor Libby Schaaf and attorneys, Orrick said he was “heartened that no one is doing a victory dance in the end zone.” 

Oakland police have been under federal watch since 2003, when the city settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by 119 plaintiffs alleging a group of officers known as “The Riders” planted drugs, brutalized, and racially profiled West Oakland residents. The city agreed to place OPD under an outside monitoring team and federal judge while it worked on reforms. The court ordered OPD to complete 52 reform tasks over five years. 

The Negotiated Settlement Agreement, or NSA, is now in its 19th year. It is one of the longest federal oversight programs of a U.S. police agency. 

Orrick’s comments on Wednesday followed statements filed in court documents last week by attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris. The two civil rights attorneys, who represent plaintiffs in the 21-year-old lawsuit which led to the oversight program, wrote that after years of backsliding, OPD has made significant progress. Chanin and Burris wrote that it is time to begin discussions to wind down the NSA. 

Since the last court hearing before Orrick in February, OPD managed to come back into compliance in several areas, including how officers report use of force incidents and the department’s use of an Executive Force Review Board to investigate police officer shootings and other critical incidents. 

But the department remains out of compliance with five tasks related to use of force investigations, consistency of discipline against OPD members, data collection to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops, completing internal affairs investigations within a required timeframe, and internal affairs complaint procedures. 

On Wednesday, Orrick indicated that the department must first be in compliance with all tasks before it could begin a one-year sustainability period during which the department has to prove that the reforms can last without supervision of the judge and independent monitor. 

While praising Armstrong, he also peppered the chief and OPD commanders with questions about why the department continues to lag in some areas. The judge said he continues to be concerned about the lack of female recruits and recruitment of officers who “reflect Oakland’s diversity,” rigorous and timely investigations of use of force cases, and ensuring discipline handed out to OPD members is fair and equitable. 

Although the number of traffic stops OPD conducts has decreased dramatically over the past several years, there are still racial disparities evident in who is getting stopped by police, Orrick said. Black people continue to be stopped at higher rates than all other racial groups. And recently, stops of Latinos increased by 5%. Armstrong said the increase is the result of “evidence-based” stops due to a wave of violent crime in Oakland. 

In his remarks, Chanin recalled the first decade of the NSA, which he said were marked by “some of the worst atrocities ever committed by the Oakland Police Department.” 

He listed those as the department’s heavy-handed response to an antiwar protest at the Port of Oakland in 2003, the department’s failure to stop an officer who for years sexually preyed on Asian and immigrant women, a search warrant scandal in which officers falsified sworn affidavits resulting in illegal raids on mostly Black people’s homes in East Oakland, the widespread practice of strip searching Black men, and the handling of the Occupy Oakland protests

In 2012, Chanin and Burris filed a motion to place OPD under receivership. Judge Henderson stopped short of having the city stripped of control over its police department, but he created the position of a “compliance director” who had the power to discipline officers and force other changes on the department. By 2015, Chanin said the department was showing improvement, to the point where he and Burris were drafting an agreement to wind down the oversight program in early 2016, until a sexual exploitation scandal involving OPD officers exploded, leading to the removal of three police chiefs in a week. 

“The OPD has not reached compliance with all 52 tasks, however, there has been remarkable improvement which must be recognized,” Chanin said during Wednesday’s court hearing. “Officers who were not even here 10 years, and commanders who were here but not in a position of authority, cannot have OPD’s past held over them indefinitely. If that happens, there will not be incentive for them to change going forward.” 

Chanin urged an independent monitor who reports to Judge Orrick, former Rochester Police Chief Robert Warshaw, to focus on the remaining tasks in his next report and offer specific recommendations for how OPD can attain compliance. Chanin asked the court to be prepared to discuss ending NSA at the next court hearing on January 5. 

“Progress is a dynamic process,” Chanin said. “Standing still is really moving backwards as many of the police departments in the Bay Area and beyond are moving backwards even as we speak. The end of the NSA should not be misconstrued to indicate the process of reform, that doing better, is over.” 

But Judge Orrick indicated January may be too early to start a conversation about ending OPD’s oversight. 

“I am confident there will be all sorts of things that will come up between now and then that are challenges to the department,” he said. 

Outside investigators are days away from completing an internal investigation of an Instagram account believed to be run by one or more Oakland police officers. Posts included contempt for OPD policies meant to prevent corruption and police brutality, along with sexist images and racist language. 

Orrick has instructed outside counsel to share a report of the investigation’s findings with independent federal monitor Robert Warshaw and provide Orrick a copy. The judge said he will decide which parts of the report, if any, should be disclosed publicly. 

If the Instagram investigation uncovers “racism, misogyny and a culture of rot” within OPD, that would “make it impossible for the OPD to fully comply with the NSA,” Orrick said. 

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.