The Oakland Police Department Administrative Building in Downtown Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Mayor Libby Schaaf, Chief LeRonne Armstrong and members of OPD’s command staff appeared before federal Judge William Orrick on Wednesday afternoon, the first hearing after the release of an outside law firm’s investigation into last year’s Instagram scandal

Orrick commended OPD leadership for making strides to achieve court-mandated reforms during a challenging and violent year that included 134 homicides, the highest number in over a decade. Despite the progress, Orrick said the police department is not yet ready to begin a transition period that would result in the conclusion of the nearly two decade long federal court oversight. 

The reform effort, known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, dates back to 2003 and stems from a civil rights lawsuit alleging a group of officers known as the Riders beat and planted drugs on West Oakland residents. Under the settlement’s terms, the police department was placed under the supervision of a federal judge and independent monitor. The oversight was later expanded to include a compliance director. Robert Warshaw, a retired Rochester, N.Y. police chief, currently serves as both monitor and compliance director and reports to Judge Orrick. 

The Oaklandside listened in on Wednesday’s hearing held via Zoom. Here are some of the major takeaways.

Of the 52 tasks identified in the NSA, OPD remains out of full compliance with five tasks related to how the department investigates use of force by officers, whether discipline is consistently and fairly applied against OPD employees who violate city rules, how OPD collects and uses data to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops, whether internal affairs investigations are finished within a required timeframe, and whether OPD is properly handling internal affairs complaints. 

Orrick also singled out ongoing failures of officers to activate their body-worn cameras. A November report issued by monitor Warshaw found 15 instances, in a review of 69 use of force cases, where officers did not properly activate their body-worn cameras, including failures to activate, delays in activation, and other problems. 

The judge was particularly concerned with the findings of an outside law firm, which investigated an Instagram account that spread anti police reform, misogynist, and racist content which was viewed by current OPD officers. San Francisco-based law firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen LLP in a 23-page report concluded that the Oakland Police Department, at all levels, “took much too long to recognize the bigoted and corrosive nature” of the Instagram posts. The account “@crimereductionteam” was run by an Oakalnd police officer who was fired for a 2018 fatal police shooting. In all, nine officers were disciplined related to the internal affairs case. 

“The Instagram investigation spotlighted a number of troubling problems. The one that concerns me the most was the failure of leadership of the department to recognize the corrosive impact of that account and how it undermined everything that the NSA was intended to accomplish,” Orrick said. 

Mayor Schaaf did not hold back when addressing the social media account. Schaaf said the account’s content “literally vomited” on all the values Oakland holds dear. 

“Everyone on this call felt the heat of my wrath when that ungodly, embarrassing, horrific Instagram account was discovered,” Schaaf told the judge. “I appreciated that no one made excuses even though it was a chaotic time in our city.” 

The outside investigators recommended that OPD create a social media policy and rules for using personal devices (phones, tablets, etc.) for work. The report also advised the city to build on the city’s existing anti-discrimination policy. Orrick called on OPD to swiftly implement those recommendations. 

Some signs of progress for OPD

Orrick commended OPD for conducting comprehensive use of force investigations and reducing racial disparities in traffic stops. The total number of stops carried out by OPD officers has decreased dramatically over the past several years. However, Black people continue to be stopped at higher rates than other racial groups. Recently, stops of Latinos increased by 5%. 

The judge also praised Armstrong and the OPD command staff for the diversity of police recruits in recent academies, though he said he would like to see more women in the training programs. 

“OPD is justified to be very proud of these accomplishments, which are core to the NSA,” Orrick said. “I recognize that given the detail in the NSA, it’s hard to ensure each part is always in compliance.” 

Among the 39 trainees in the department’s 187th Police Academy, which just got underway, are 7 women and 32 men. According to OPD, 12 are Oakland residents and 15 are Hispanic, 11 Black, 4 Asian, 3 white, and 6 identify as some other racial group, making it one of the most diverse academies in OPD’s history.

The progress came despite a challenging two years combating violent crime on city streets amid a global pandemic. Oakland recorded 109 homicides in 2020 and 134 in 2021, the highest number of killings since 2006. Mayor Schaaf told Orrick that OPD’s ranks also dropped to its lowest number in a decade: 676. 

While Orrick acknowledged the “challenging times” he said, “I don’t see any of that as excuses or reasons to set aside the NSA or the prior orders of the court.” 

Civil rights attorneys still think OPD is close to compliance, despite recent setbacks

Attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris, who represent the mostly Black Oakland residents whose lawsuit led to the NSA, had asked the court last year to consider winding down the oversight program, given the accomplishments made under Armstrong. But the Instagram case, the attorneys wrote in a court brief filed in December, showed there are still officers who are hostile to reform. 

“I think the fact that we had a scandal like this in 2021 over 20 years after this case started is depressing,” Chanin told the court. “I sometimes wonder if (an Oaklandside reporter) had not discovered the memes, if they would ever have become public. I wonder why this case wasn’t referred to internal affairs when nearly every member of OPD had been tipped off via email.” 

Chanin and Burris said in order to begin the one-year sustainability period—after showing it can maintain compliance with all 52 tasks for a year the NSA can be ended—the department needs to finalize its risk management and social media policies, in addition to completing the remaining tasks. The attorneys would like to see the sustainability period begin sometime this year. 

“The current command staff has an opportunity to push OPD over the goal line and attain compliance with the NSA,” the attorneys wrote in their court brief. “If they succeed, and the Department succeeds, the personnel who are responsible for this success will be remembered long after the NSA is over. OPD should seize this opportunity to be remembered by current and future residents of Oakland as having accomplished something that has eluded a long line of its predecessors.” 

The next hearing before Orrick is scheduled for late April. The judge asked that OPD, the city and the plaintiff attorneys come prepared to address cultural issues within the department and what they think the court’s oversight should be moving forward. 

“I’m going to assume that all of the structures of the NSA will have been in place and complied with,” said Orrick. “I want to know how the court can be helpful to assure the permanence of the impressive accomplishments made thus far and the ultimate substantial compliance with the NSA.”

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.