Community Police Review Agency Executive Director John Alden Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

The Oakland Police Commission, a seven-person city board responsible for overseeing some aspects of the police department, fired the head of its Community Police Review Agency at their regular meeting last Thursday. 

Commissioners did not state why they dismissed John Alden, who led CPRA, a team of civilian investigators who look into police misconduct complaints independently of OPD’s own internal affairs investigators. He was also responsible for helping the police commission draft new policies for the Oakland Police Department, advising the commission about its budget, and a variety of other tasks.

“The Police Commission treats personnel matters like this one as confidential,” commission Chair Tyfahra Milele told The Oaklandside in an email. Several other members of the commission did not reply to requests for comment.

A Berkeley Law graduate and licensed attorney, Alden has had a long career in police oversight. He worked for San Francisco’s equivalent of the CPRA, before coming to Oakland. Before that, he worked for the San Francisco Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division and for the San Francisco District Attorney, where he was the managing attorney in charge of examining police shootings and other major incidents. 

When Oakland hired Alden in 2019, the commission issued a press release praising his “extensive and in depth experience in civilian oversight work.” The commission did not issue a press release after firing Alden last week.

Alden was CPRA’s second full-time director. Anthony Finnell led the agency after it was established in 2017, but was fired by the commission in November 2018, also for reasons that were never disclosed. Finnell now works for Seattle’s Office of Inspector General, which has police oversight functions similar to Oakland’s Police Commission.

The commission’s personnel decisions have a history of stirring controversy. Finnell sued Oakland for wrongful termination and the city settled with him for $40,000 in 2019. The Police Commission also instigated the firing of Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick in February 2020. Mayor Libby Schaaf sided with the commission in removing Kirkpatrick, resulting in a “no cause” dismissal, although several commissioners later said Kirkpatrick was removed for failing to make progress on OPD’s reforms, among other reasons. Kirkpatrick is suing the city alleging she was fired for blowing the whistle on misconduct by police commissioners. Her lawsuit is still pending.

In the weeks leading up to Alden’s removal, the commission’s meeting agendas noted that they were conferring in closed sessions about possibly dismissing a CPRA employee. They also noted they were carrying out a performance review of Alden.

Too much harmony between investigators?

Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, an influential local activist group that helped create the commission in 2017, and a close observer of its activities and decisions, said Alden’s dismissal took her by surprise.

But she speculated that the decision might have had something to do with one of the things the commission was created to doin the first place—and the fact that it hasn’t been happening much.

The Police Commission was established in part to transform the city’s disciplinary process for police misconduct cases. Previously, Oakland’s police chief and city administrator had the final say on whether or not to punish an officer for excessive force, lying, and other less serious policy violations. They usually relied on OPD’s internal affairs investigators to get the facts about a case. 

When the Commission and Community Police Review Agency came into being, CPRA was tasked with conducting separate and parallel investigations of misconduct complaints, independently of OPD, and to form its own conclusions about discipline. If CPRA reaches different findings than OPD’s, the decision about whether or not officers should be punished is then put in the hands of a separate “discipline committee” made up of three members of the Police Commission. The thinking was that an outside, independent process could result in more officers facing discipline for bad deeds.

However, in practice, CPRA investigators have almost always agreed with OPD’s internal affairs investigators about cases and recommended punishment. In fact, the first discipline committee did not take place until 2019, and the police commission convened no discipline committees at all in 2020 or 2021, according to commission records.

“Internal affairs and CPRA always seem to reach the same findings on all the investigations of misconduct,” said Grinage. “I would assume that would raise some questions. If there’s that degree of redundancy, why do we have two different agencies doing that work?”

But Grinage underscored that she can only speculate on this being a possible reason the commission fired Alden.

One reason for the high rate of agreement between OPD and CPRA might be that the two agencies confer with one another after completing disciplinary investigations and before making their final decisions. In some cases, according to OPD records, CPRA was able to successfully convince the police department to reconsider its findings and impose harsher punishment on officers. One case involved a 2019 search in which two young men were seriously injured by an OPD police dog. According to OPD records, Alden’s team successfully advocated for greater discipline.

Whatever the reason for Alden’s termination, the commission now has to fill the job.

Milele said the commission will appoint an interim director soon and that anyone interested in learning more or weighing in on the job can attend the commission’s March 31 meeting

“We will start a search for a permanent director shortly,” said Milele.

Grinage said recruiting a new director could prove difficult if the commission didn’t have a solid reason for firing Alden, or simply because the reasons aren’t transparent. “He has got a pretty high profile in NACOLE, which is where they’d be wanting to draw his successor,” she said, referring to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Grinage also noted that Alden’s predecessor, Anthony Finell, is also highly engaged with NACOLE. 

“If they get a bad rap with NACOLE, who is going to want to come here and take this job?”

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.