Michelle Phillips most recently worked as a deputy inspector in Baltimore's Office of Inspector General and will lead police oversight efforts in Oakland. Credit: Courtesy of Oakland Police Commission

When Oakland voters overwhelmingly approved creation of a civilian Police Commission in 2016, they were also voting to establish an inspector general’s office staffed by professional auditors and investigators to watch over the police department.

However, the inspector general plan stalled as legislation needed to set up the office wasn’t passed until 2018, and there was a contentious debate among Oakland officials about who would supervise the new IG—the Police Commission, or the city administrator. That dispute wasn’t cleared up until in November 2020, when voters passed a second ballot measure clarifying that the inspector general would answer only to the Police Commission.

This week, the Police Commission finally hired someone to fill these very big shoes.

Michelle Phillips, the deputy inspector of investigations for Baltimore’s Inspector General, will become the Oakland Police Commission’s first inspector general. Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to hire Phillips, one of three finalists for the job.

“We need stronger policies to ensure that fundamental civil rights are not violated in any shape, form, or facet when interacting with OPD officers,” said Phillips during a public forum in October with the commission. “We have to make sure we protect the community so we get back to that trust and community policing in an appropriate and effective manner.”

According to her biography, before joining the Baltimore Inspector General’s office, Phillips held a management position at the National Police Foundation where she led large-scale research projects into community policing and assisted in the creation of a national, open-source database for police shootings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Coppin State University and her master’s degree in Criminal Justice, with a specialization in Law and Courts, from the University of Baltimore. She is a certified fraud examiner and certified inspector general investigator.

The Baltimore office she comes from is similar to the Oakland City Auditor’s office, which investigates fraud, waste, and abuse by city officials and employees across all departments, and issues reports about wrongdoing or bad policies that need to be fixed.

As the Police Commission’s inspector general, Phillips will be tasked with reviewing a broad range of Oakland Police Department policies and procedures, including how OPD investigates police misconduct and disciplines officers. Her staff will analyze patterns in OPD’s use of force and racial profiling, examine police training and education systems, and much more. The IG will also review the work of the Community Police Review Agency, the arm of the Police Commission that conducts parallel investigations into police misconduct complaints.

She will also be allowed to attend OPD’s Executive Force Review Board and Force Review Board hearings, where police shootings and other serious uses of force are examined by senior officers who make disciplinary decisions or recommend policy changes and training. Phillips will also be able to attend Skelly hearings, which are held when officers want to contest a discipline decision of the chief.

Some community members were upset by the commission’s process of selecting Phillips, which they said may have violated the Brown Act, a state law that requires governments to conduct certain types of business in public. On December 13, before the full commission had convened to vote on the matter, the Police Commission issued a press release announcing Phillips had already been hired. Under state law, the commissioners cannot make official final decisions outside of a meeting that’s open to the public.

Cathay Leonard, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, a group that helped create the Police Commission, said the board loses credibility when it makes decisions behind closed doors. “Where was the transparency?” asked Leonard.

Others said they were surprised by Phillips’ selection because they felt the two other candidates, Rebecca Johnson, who currently works for OPD’s inspector general, and Mac Muir, a supervising investigator at New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, were better qualified and presented themselves better at the community forum in October.

But members of the police commission described Phillips as the best candidate, voting unanimously to hire her.

Police Commission Chair Regina Jackson apologized at the beginning of the meeting about the premature press release announcing the selection of Phillips, and said that the statement was made due to enthusiasm for the candidate.

“Quite frankly, out of excitement about our top candidate, we made our announcement too early,” said Jackson.

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.