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Just before midnight on May 31, 2020, amidst nationwide protests over police brutality and widespread civil unrest in Oakland and many other cities, several Oakland police officers confronted a group of suspected burglars as they ran away from a Fruitvale shoe store carrying clothing and shoes.
Oakland police Lieutenant Richard Vierra was one of the first officers on the scene. He used his baton to strike an unarmed 18-year-old woman across the face as she ran down a ramp. The blow split her lip open, knocked her teeth loose, and caused her to fall to the ground.
OPD and Police Commission staff immediately opened an investigation to determine whether the lieutenant violated department policy by using potentially deadly force on a burglary suspect. Records show Vierra refused to participate in the two internal probes, aside from giving a statement to the department’s Criminal Investigations Division.
An OPD captain who was supervising Vierra the night of the baton incident accused the lieutenant of making statements, earlier that evening, suggesting that he intended to aggressively arrest people and that he knew the city would be powerless to discipline him because he would retire before the investigation was completed. Capt. Eric Lewis summed up his feelings about Vierra’s actions, telling investigators “you know, maybe he was a little bit out of control that particular evening.”
Roughly a year later, OPD Internal Affairs and the civilian police commission’s Community Police Review Agency reached a conclusion in this case. They said Vierra lacked credibility when he claimed he was trying to trip the woman, and there was reason to believe he lied in his statement to CID. They determined that Vierra used excessive force and committed other policy violations and recommended he be terminated, according to a May 2021 report.
But, Vierra, a 32-year OPD veteran, was already long gone. He retired on Aug. 5, 2020, more than two months after the baton incident and about nine months before the city finished its disciplinary investigation. Vierra retired with a lieutenant’s pension and is currently collecting roughly $13,550 a month, according to CalPERS.
For years, police accountability activists have complained about the ability of officers to quit their jobs to avoid being disciplined. In some cases, investigations have been shut down after officers leave while under investigation, and those officers went on to work at other police agencies. In Vierra’s case, had the lieutenant stayed on the job long enough to be fired he would still be able to collect his pension. But he could have faced other consequences, including demotion, which might have impacted his pension.
Vierra declined to speak with The Oaklandside, but his attorney, Harry Stern, denied Vierra ever said anything about wanting to act aggressively toward civilians that night. Stern added that he thinks OPD treated Vierra unfairly and that the incident highlights a very different kind of problem within police agencies. OPD fired Vierra after he was already retired in an attempt to appear to be tough on suspected misconduct at a time when OPD is under the microscope, according to Stern.
OPD has been under federal court oversight for nearly 20 years, but the department may be nearing completion of its reform program. Past failures to discipline officers is one factor that has kept OPD under court oversight, but in recent years officers have increasingly complained about “too heavy” discipline by the department that’s led by a chief and command staff who are intent on completing the reforms.
“There’s no way in the world this would rise to anything close to termination,” Stern said in an interview. “They simply knew he had already retired and they tacked that on to bolster their stats.”
The case, reported here for the first time, illustrates in more ways than one how retirement is a way for officers to avoid being punished for misconduct, whether it’s been fairly imposed or not.
Police scrambled to respond to protests and widespread looting
In the summer of 2020, protests erupted in Oakland and other U.S. cities following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as fellow officers stood by. Large-scale demonstrations in Oakland took place over a tumultuous four-day period, from May 29 to June 1, with confrontations between police and demonstrators as well as vandalism, fires, and looting of shops throughout the city.
The events culminated on June 1, when Oakland police and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies opened fire on hundreds of protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets with little provocation. Officers also carried out a mass arrest of demonstrators near Broadway and 14th Street.
Dozens of complaints were filed against OPD for its handling of the demonstrations, including protesters injured by impact-munitions and chemical agents, and allegations that officers did not provide medical care to some of the injured people. So many complaints were filed that the City Council put extra funding in the CPRA’s budget to handle the increased workload.
Last June, Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong announced that more than 20 officers violated department policies when they fired tear gas and arrested protesters, and said internal affairs sustained 35 allegations of misconduct against officers.
Armstrong, at the same press conference, apologized for sharing false information about the department’s response to the demonstrators. At the time, Armstrong, then a deputy chief under interim Chief Susan Manheimer, told the media that protesters were tossing rocks and bottles and were preparing Molotov cocktails to throw at officers and this was the reason police used force on June 1. The Oaklandside’s investigation of the police response turned up no evidence that anyone was preparing Molotov cocktails that evening.
The vast majority of allegations against OPD officers over the four days of protests were dismissed as “unfounded,” “exonerated,” or “not sustained,” according to the CPRA. Most of the misconduct cases have been kept secret due to state laws that maintain strict confidentiality of police personnel records. A few cases, however, must be released because they involved uses of force that could have resulted in death or great bodily harm. The Oaklandside requested records for several of these cases and the city recently began producing some of the files.
Vierra’s use of force appears to be the most severe incident during the chaotic four-day period.
A caravan burglary of a Fruitvale Shoe store
Before hitting the streets to monitor the third night of protests over police brutality, Vierra allegedly told a captain about how he planned to handle any clashes that night between police and demonstrators or looters.
Over pizza at the Oakland Police Officers’ Association headquarters on May 31, 2020, Vierra allegedly told Capt. Eric Lewis that OPD should “go out and arrest everybody.” When Lewis advised against what he viewed as an “aggressive” approach that could lead to violence, Vierra allegedly doubled down by implying he wasn’t afraid to violate department rules.
“By the time they catch up to me, I’ll be retired,” Vierra allegedly said, according to an account Lewis later gave to OPD’s Internal Affairs. Lewis told investigators that he took this to mean that Vierra planned to leave OPD before the department could discipline him.
That night, Vierra was in charge of four squads of officers and rode in an unmarked police vehicle driven by acting Lt. Francisco Rojas. The detail was assigned to downtown protests, but was sent to East Oakland, where police were receiving calls of vandalism and looting. Police reports that documented the next few hours describe chaotic burglary scenes and a scattered police response made worse by sloppy communication.
The officers under Vierra’s supervision first responded to a pharmacy. But Vierra and Rojas soon dashed off to another call, leaving behind most of the patrol units. A little before midnight, the lieutenants drove to 1620 High Street, a shopping center in the city’s Fruitvale District where the WSS shoe store was being ransacked.
When they arrived, they spotted individuals running out of the store through a hole in the wall toward waiting vehicles. Empty shoe boxes were strewn about outside. Vierra drew his gun and stopped a group attempting to flee in a car. Then, he turned his attention to the people still inside the store. Video footage later reviewed by investigators captured what happened next.
The lieutenant moved toward the store and extended his metal baton, known as an “Asp.” He swung the baton across his body at someone running down a ramp outside the store, appearing to strike the person in the lower back or waist.
Behind that person was a young woman who dropped a bag of items she was carrying out of the store. As she ran down the ramp past Vierra, the lieutenant unleashed a backhanded swing, striking the woman somewhere between her upper chest and lower face with the Asp. She collapsed.
According to OPD’s investigation, Vierra told her to get up. The woman, who said she was about to pass out, replied, “What the fuck, bro! You busted my mouth open with the bar!…Why’d you hit me in my mouth!?”
Vierra called for an ambulance. The baton strike had cut through the woman’s upper lip, requiring 14 stitches, OPD reports said. It also loosened some of her teeth and caused small fractures.
The woman, an 18-year-old from Sacramento, was taken to a hospital and later released by OPD. She was not charged with burglary. The city redacted the woman’s name from the investigative reports it recently released.
Unnecessary use of potentially lethal force, or an accident?
OPD and Police Commission investigators wrote in their reports that they were troubled by the fact that Vierra chose to use his baton against a person suspected of burglary and they found that his decision to strike the woman was a violation of the department’s use of force policy.
In instances where an “Asp” is used, OPD instructs officers to strike subjects “in areas like the shoulder tips, clavicle, rib cage, the arm from above the elbow down to the fingertips, above the groin or the solar plexus.”
A person’s head, neck, or throat is considered off-limits. And an intentional strike to the head is classified as lethal force, an internal report said.
In the sole statement he made to OPD criminal investigators, Vierra said he thought the woman and others were a threat to the community because they were fleeing the scene of a crime.
But Police Commission investigators wrote in their report that this “was not reasonable” because the crime of stealing shoes was “not severe” and because the woman was not armed. “Video footage suggests that Lt. Vierra actually swung his Asp out of frustration, and not because he believed force was necessary,” investigators wrote.
Vierra also failed to carry out his duties as a supervisor, OPD determined. Instead of stepping back and guiding his officers, he charged into the action and used force to make arrests. “This prevented Vierra from adequately providing instruction and direction to their subordinates,” internal affairs investigators wrote.
Investigators also found that Vierra wasn’t truthful with Capt. Lewis, his immediate supervisor that night, and with other OPD officers. Lewis showed up at the shoe store after the incident and Vierra told him he was trying to “trip” the woman when he accidentally hit her face. When he spoke to OPD criminal investigators a few days later he said he was trying to “trip up” the woman by hitting her hands or torso. Investigators didn’t find this explanation credible because he swung the baton at her upper body, not her feet.
An OPD pre-discipline report found that the misconduct was willful and deliberate and that Vierra should have known his actions were inappropriate given how long he’s been an officer. However, his actions were not premeditated, the report said. Vierra had only one other sustained finding against him during the five years prior. Information about that case is not known because it was redacted in the report. After his last performance evaluations in 2015 and 2016, Vierra was found to exceed expectations.
Vierra’s attorney Stern pushed back on the claims that Vierra went out looking for an excuse to use force that night.
“It’s preposterous. If one of your subordinates indicates they are going to go out and commit violence and says something like ‘by the time they catch up to me, I’ll be retired,’ wouldn’t you think a supervisor would do something about it at the time?” Stern said about Lewis’ recollection of the night.
Stern also said there’s reason to doubt Lewis’ statement. According to Stern, Lewis was caught last year on a recording making “extremely derogatory comments about other command staff and then foolishly lied about it and was caught and forced out.”
Sources with knowledge of Lewis’ departure confirmed this account. Lewis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stern said Vierra had a good reputation at OPD and said the baton strike to the face was “inadvertent.”
When asked to comment on the case, Chief Armstrong said OPD “holds itself to a high level of accountability.” Records show Armstrong agreed with the recommended discipline.
“The allegations in this matter were thoroughly investigated,” Armstrong told us. “Constitutional policing is the cornerstone of OPD’s commitment to serving the residents, businesses, and visitors of Oakland, through fair, just, and unbiased treatment. Building trust within our community is quintessential, and when officers fall outside of our values, policies, and practices, we will hold ourselves accountable.”
In November 2020, the woman filed a claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against Oakland, alleging she was subjected to “excessive and constitutionally violative force,” but it was denied by City Attorney Barbara Parker.