After nearly 20 years, the Oakland Police Department has achieved full compliance with all but one of the 52 court-ordered reform tasks. Credit: Amir Aziz

After nearly two decades, the Oakland Police Department is coming closer to emerging from federal oversight. 

U.S. District Judge William Orrick at a hearing on Wednesday afternoon said OPD has come far enough in achieving court-mandated reforms to begin a one-year sustainability period to end the oversight. 

Entering into the one-year period is a significant milestone for a reform program that dates back to 2003, when the city settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by 119 people alleging a group of officers known as the Riders violated their civil rights. 

If OPD can demonstrate that it can sustain the progress it has made without a federal judge and monitoring team looking over its shoulder, the reform program can come to end after the yearlong probationary period. 

“If OPD doesn’t fully comply and remain in full compliance during the sustainability period, the court’s oversight will continue. It does not work to run out the clock on this,” Orrick said. “I will be an extraordinarily happy person if a year and a bit from now we’ll be able to close out this part of Oakland’s history.” 

Orrick praised progress made under Chief LeRonne Armstrong but said he had expected OPD to be in full compliance with all of the 52 court-ordered reform tasks. One task remains: ensuring officers are disciplined consistently, following studies that have shown Black officers were disproportionately punished. 

The judge also said he had expected OPD to have adopted changes, including a social media and cell phone policy that was recommended as the result of an investigation into an Instagram account set up by a former police officer which spread racist, sexist, and anti police reform content. 

Nevertheless, Orrick said he will soon issue a court order stating when the probationary period begins and outlining steps the city must take during the one-year window. 

At a news conference at City Hall after the hearing, Mayor Libby Schaaf said Oakland leaders are committed to progressive policing. Schaaf was joined by Chief Armstrong, Oakland Police Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele, and the citizen commission’s new inspector general, Michelle Phillips. 

“This is not something that will ever be over. It’s a continual quest for us as Oakland’s leaders to ensure that our police department is a national model, is the vanguard for progressive, professional policing,” Schaaf said. 

A more than twenty-year saga of scandal, reforms, backsliding, and progress

OPD’s reform efforts began in 2000 when a rookie police officer, Keith Batt, blew the whistle on brutal and dishonest tactics he witnessed on the job in West Oakland. The department investigated and found that four officers—Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung, and Frank Vazquez—had beaten suspects, planted drugs on some, and written false reports, among other misdeeds. The four were fired, and Mabanag, Siapno, and Hornung were put on trial twice, each trial ending in acquitals on some charges while the jury deadlocked on others. Vazquez fled and remains a fugitive to this day.

The city also faced a civil rights lawsuit brought by victims of the Riders. In 2003, Oakland settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay out more than $10 million and to complete a series of reforms known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, or NSA. Initially, oversight by a team of independent monitors and a federal judge was supposed to last five years.

Progress on the NSA reforms was slow or nonexistent during the first few years. By the mid-2000s, OPD officers were involved in multiple controversial shootings and other deadly uses of force. Other scandals, including allegations of illegal public strip searches, falsification of warrants, and the mishandling of high-profile investigations like the case against the Your Black Muslim Bakery followers who murdered journalist Chauncey Bailey, led to the extension of OPD’s reform program. 

The department’s violent response to the Occupy Oakland protests, which resulted in the wounding of veteran Scott Olsen, nearly led to a full takeover of the department by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversaw the reforms at the time.

From 2013 to early 2016, the Oakland Police Department appeared to have gotten back on track. Officer-involved shootings plummeted, as did other uses of force. Crime was also on the decline. But the explosive sex exploitation scandal that involved multiple OPD officers, and police from other departments, was a massive setback, leading to the firing or resignation of three chiefs in a week.

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong at McClymonds High School on Feb. 9, 2021 during his swearing in ceremony. Credit: Amir Aziz

Former Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was hired in 2017 to clean up the department’s “toxic macho culture,” as Mayor Schaaf characterized it at the time. But during Kirkpatrick’s tenure, OPD fell out of compliance with multiple key tasks in the reform agreement. After she was fired in early 2020, the department’s current chief, LeRonne Armstrong was hired.

At his swearing-in ceremony in early 2021, Armstrong vowed to bring OPD into compliance with all required reforms. At the time, there were seven remaining NSA tasks for OPD to complete. Under Armstrong’s leadership, OPD last summer completed two tasks related to how it investigates use-of-force incidents and police shootings. 

Still some hesitation from civil rights attorneys involved in the reform effort

The recent progress brought consensus among the Oakland City Attorney’s Office and plaintiff attorneys James Chanin and John Burris, who wrote in a joint court filing that Orrick should consider starting the sustainability period. Chanin and Burris filed the lawsuit which led to the NSA, and continue to represent the plaintiffs. 

The attorneys argued OPD is a far better police agency than it was 20 years ago. In a recent court filing, they said the reduction in racial disparities inpolice stops “is tangible evidence of the real and durable cultural change the NSA was intended to achieve.” 

Burris said he expects OPD to have checks and balances in place to deal with any issues that take place after the NSA has ended. 

“It’s not something just for today or even the next year that we are working for,” Burris said in court. “This is about a generation. What I’m concerned about is how people are treated in the streets. For me the question is what’s in place to ensure that those kinds of issues will be taken care of in the future.” 

Chanin said he was “somewhat hesitant” about OPD entering the sustainability period, given that they have not achieved full compliance. 

“We are not looking for perfection in this sustainability period. What we are looking for is a department that can and will identify problems and major scandals if and when they occur and will not leave that job to someone else,” Chanin said. “All the major scandals in the past years have been discovered by someone else, either a reporter, the monitor, a member of the City Council, the plaintiff attorneys or a combination. I am not confident … that it will be brought forward by the OPD itself.” 

Rockne Lucia, an attorney representing the Oakland police officers’ union, said “the checks and balances, the process to identify problems, to fix problems exists.” 

“There is a structure in place that is unmatched and unparalleled in the state and probably across the country. There is not a police department in the state that has embedded into the culture the training that this department has developed. I’m glad their efforts are about to be rewarded.”

In his most recent report, Robert Warshaw, who has served as OPD’s independent monitor since 2010, said OPD has reached a significant milestone and commended Chief Armstrong and OPD’s command staff “for their tenacity and commitment to ensuring that the tasks in the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, which constitute modern, progressive policing, have been met.”

However, both Warshaw and Orrick said the remaining task, which OPD is in partial compliance with, is critical to ending the NSA. 

“Disparity in discipline is a significant issue,” Warshaw wrote. “In issuing this report, the department has reduced the issues to simply a question of outcomes from disciplinary processes, and arguably, it has fumbled those.”

Warshaw and his monitoring team will continue to oversee the department though the sustainability period but focus on a narrower set of reform tasks that the judge said are at the heart of reform. 

The next hearing before Orrick is Sept. 14.

David DeBolt reported 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.

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.