A jury trial that will decide whether former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was fired as retaliation for speaking up about incidents involving members of the Police Commission got underway this week, with Kirkpatrick taking the witness stand Tuesday to tell her side of the story.
Kirkpatrick, who became chief in February 2017, was fired without cause in early 2020 by the civilian Police Commission along with Mayor Libby Schaaf. The former chief later filed a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the city, leading to a trial in a San Francisco courtroom which began with opening statements on Monday.
The trial is scheduled to take place over the next week. Former City Administrator Sabrina Landreth and Lt. Aaron Smith of the Oakland Black Officers Association took the stand Wednesday. Mayor Libby Schaaf and current and former members of the Oakland Police Commission are also expected to testify.
As the trial’s first witness, Kirkpatrick walked jurors through her 35-year law enforcement career and how it all came crashing down in 2019 as tensions grew between her and the seven-member Police Commission voters established in 2016 to oversee the police department.
The former chief, who at times wept on the stand, defended her performance, noting that crime rates fell during the years she led the department, and that OPD reduced racial disparities in police stops. She testified that she was blindsided by Schaaf’s decision to join the commission in terminating her. The firing left her humiliated and unable to find another police chief job, she said.
Kirkpatrick maintained she was fired for elevating what she described as concerning abuses of power by two members of the Police Commission to the mayor, city administration, city attorney, and the city auditor and ethics commission director.
“I didn’t want to leave Oakland,” Kirkpatrick said. “I still want to be a police chief but I don’t know if that is going to happen. I am always going to take a stand whether I’m a chief or not. I hope it helps others to stand up.”
The day began with her attorney, James Slaughter, a partner with Keker Van Nest & Peters, questioning his client about her upbringing in Memphis, where she first became a police officer and witnessed misconduct by fellow street cops, who she said drank alcohol on the job, fixed tickets and problems for friends, and flashed their badges to get into movies and out of restaurant bills.
Kirkpatrick, often directing her comments to jurors, said those early experiences set her on a path to become a reform-minded leader of police. Slaughter flashed a photo of Kirkpatrick and her 1982 police academy graduation class, taken not long after she saw an advertisement in the local newspaper and decided to become an officer.
“Early on I saw the nobility of police but I also saw the corrupt side of policing,” she said. “I made a decision which path I was going to take. I chose to be and tried to be one of the good ones. There are many out there.”
After going to law school and stints as chief of police in Spokane, Federal Way, and Ellensburg, Washington, as well as undersheriff of King County, her career took her to the Chicago Police Department briefly before she took the job in Oakland. Along the way, she testified, she was a strict but fair leader who welcomed oversight. She said the police code of silence—officers refusing to report each other for misconduct—is “one of the biggest cancers in policing.”
In November 2016, when she first interviewed with Schaaf at a hotel in San Francisco, OPD was recovering from a scandal involving officers who sexually exploited a young woman. The department was still out of reach of complying with court-ordered reforms stemming from the 2000s Riders case that brought OPD under the watch of a federal judge and monitor.
Oakland voters had just overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to establish an independent civilian body with broad powers to oversee the police department. Kirkpatrick testified that she told Schaaf she welcomed the oversight and the reform effort is what “attracted” her to take the job in February 2017.
Kirkpatrick believes the city fired her for blowing the whistle about misconduct by police commissioners
Soon, Kirkpatrick was clashing with police commissioners. OPD also began backsliding on reform efforts, falling out of compliance with several tasks required under the department’s Negotiated Settlement Agreement, a roadmap created in 2003.
Kirkpatrick’s testimony focused on specific incidents involving former Commissioners Ginale Harris and Jose Dorado. The first occurred in March 2018 when two OPD neighborhood service coordinators reported to Kirkpatrick that during a meeting with Harris and Dorado, Harris complained about a problem property near her home, expressed displeasure with their work, and told them she “had a history of having people fired.”
Dorado criticized the NSCs assigned to the neighborhood where the deadly Ghost Ship fire happened in 2016, saying the NSCs should have known about issues at the warehouse and could have prevented the tragedy, Kirkpatrick testified.
The former chief forwarded a memo from one of the NCSs outlining what was said in the meeting to Landreth and senior members of the City Attorney’s Office because she viewed the conduct as inappropriate.
Kirkpatrick also gave her side of the story about an interaction she had with Harris in September 2018, when the police commissioner visited OPD to inquire about tow truck fees she was being charged. Kirkpatrick was in a meeting and recalled being interrupted by OPD public information officer Officer Johnna Watson who relayed that records staff claimed Harris “flashed” her Oakland Police Commission “badge” in an attempt to gain favor.
Kirkpatrick said she confronted Harris over what she viewed as improper favor seeking.
“I wanted to share with her that she was a public figure now and she was in the role as a public authority and that this would be the type of thing people would take about because of her authority and this is the type of stuff that gets in the news. I told her how I got some tickets as chief of police. I paid my tickets like everyone else.”
Kirkpatrick had the records staff write up a memo about the incident and emailed it to city administrators and attorneys as well as Schaaf.
By mid-2019 Kirkpatrick said her relationship with the Police Commission “had grown tense and difficult.” At a Police Commission meeting in October, she felt commissioners had bullied her deputy, Virginia Gleason, by requiring her to attend a meeting that interfered with her vacation. The day after, Kirkpatrick filed a formal complaint against the commission and took her concerns to City Auditor Courtney Ruby.
“I believe they were slapping at (Gleason) as retaliation toward me for reporting what I did,” she testified.
In another incident in November 2019, Kirkpatrick said an “anonymous” caller reported to OPD Internal Affairs that Harris got into an argument with officials at the San Francisco school her son attends and flashed her commission “badge” to responding officers. Kirkpatrick viewed this as an attempt to gain favor and reported the incident to the city administrator.
The former chief said she warned officials that she feared the commission would retaliate against her for taking these steps.
Oakland will argue Kirkpatrick was fired because she was failing to reform OPD and lost community trust
Attorney Jonathan Bass, a partner at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, the law firm representing the city, argued Tuesday that Kirkpatrick was an at-will employee who served at the pleasure of the mayor, and the city had every right to fire her.
In briefs filed before the trial, the city’s attorneys wrote that the real reason Kirkpatrick was fired was poor job performance.
When Kirkpatrick became OPD’s chief in 2017, the department had three tasks remaining in its 52 task reform program. Over the next three years, the department slid backwards, falling out of compliance with five additional tasks.
In briefs filed with the court, the city’s attorneys argued that Kirkpatrick wasn’t whistleblowing when she complained about police commissioners Harris and Dorado. Instead, they wrote that the chief was motivated by a personal vendetta against the commissioners, and her complaints were nothing more than bureaucratic infighting.
In declarations filed in preparation for the trial, Schaaf and Police Commissioner Regina Jackson have said it became clear Kirkpatrick wasn’t fit for the job because of the reform backsliding and that she didn’t show that she was committed to true reform.
Commissioners have also said they were unaware of the former chief’s complaints about Harris and Dorado when they voted to fire Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick was also heavily criticized by local police accountability activists for her handling of the 2018 fatal shooting of Joshua Pawlik. Five officers shot and killed Pawlik as he was waking up with a gun in his hand. OPD’s court-appointed monitor Robert Warshaw viewed the shooting as preventable and ordered the officers be fired, overruling Kirkpatrick’s decision to hand down lesser discipline in the case.
Kirkpatrick became emotional about her final days as chief
If the jury sides with Kirkpatrick, the verdict could be costly to the city. Kirkpatrick is seeking an unspecified amount in damages for lost pay, benefits, and future earnings from the date she was fired on Feb. 20, 2020 to the end of her contract, Feb. 26, 2022. Kirkpatrick was earning nearly $300,000 a year as chief.
The termination made national headlines and left her devastated and humiliated, Kirkpatrick testified. She said the proper end to her OPD career would have been to tell her she was out and allow her to resign or retire. Kirkpatrick said she’s struggled to find a new police chief job because the headlines have followed her to San Jose, Austin, and Memphis. She was a finalist for chief jobs in each of those cities.
“My firing made national headlines. I heard from people I hadn’t heard from since high school. That’s embarrassing,” she said. “I was concerned how my elderly parents would take it. I didn’t want them to be embarrassed of me.”
The trial is off Thursday and resumes Friday, when Schaaf is expected to take the stand. Harris, Dorado, former commissioner Edwin Prather, and commissioner Jackson are expected to be called as witnesses in the case.