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A jury on Thursday found that former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was fired in retaliation for speaking out against what she viewed as corruption within the civilian Police Commission and awarded the former chief $337,635 in monetary damages.
The nine-member jury, however, did not find that the city of Oakland violated Kirkpatrick’s free speech by terminating her in February 2020.
The split verdict was reached after two hours of deliberation, following a weeklong trial before U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley in a San Francisco federal courtroom. Whether the city will have to cover Kirkpatrick’s attorney fees, which could be a significant amount of money, will be determined later.
“We thought there was evidence that retaliation played some role in her discharge, which was why we found it was unlawful,” said juror Madison Jewel, according to Courthouse News.
Kirkpatrick, who was hired in February 2017, testified that she believed the Police Commission moved to fire her because she notified the city administrator and others about troubling incidents involving members of the commission allegedly seeking favors and abusing their authority. Kirkpatrick singled out commissioners Ginale Harris and Jose Dorado, who she said made inappropriate comments to several OPD staff about their job performance. And Kirkpatrick accused Harris of “flashing” a police commission “badge” in order to have towing fees reduced or eliminated, and again showing her commission credentials to San Francisco police officers in an incident at her child’s school.
Her attorney, James Slaughter, argued that Mayor Libby Schaaf went along with the commission’s decision to terminate the chief because they had no real cause to fire her.
Under Measure LL, which voters passed in 2016 to establish the Police Commission, the commission may terminate a chief with cause but needs Schaaf to join the vote for a no cause firing.
On the stand, Schaaf and police commissioners denied their actions were retaliatory. Attorneys with Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, the law firm representing the city, argued that Kirkpatrick was an at-will employee who served at the pleasure of the mayor and the real reason she was fired was poor job performance.
Under Kirkpatrick, the department slid backward on court-ordered reforms, falling out of compliance with five tasks OPD needed to achieve to emerge from federal court oversight. Kirkpatrick was also criticized for her handling of the 2018 shooting of Joshua Pawlik, who was killed by five officers as he was waking up with a gun in his hand.
Robert Warshaw, OPD’s court-appointed monitor, ordered the officers fired and overruled Kirkpatrick’s decision to hand down lesser discipline in the case. Warshaw viewed the shooting as preventable, a determination that was also at odds with the OPD executive board which reviews use of force incidents.
Reached by phone on Friday, Kirkpatrick declined to comment and referred questions to her attorneys. Slaughter, a partner with Keker Van Nest & Peters, said “Kirkpatrick has been vindicated.”
“She said all along that she was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on misconduct and a federal jury agreed,” Slaughter said in a statement.
PR-crisis manager Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Kirkpatrick, said the ex-chief “is beaming with joy at the jury’s decision.”
“The jury completely vindicated Chief Kirkpatrick’s whistleblower claims of corrupt actions by the Police Commission and city of Oakland,” Singer said in a statement. “The commissioners routinely asked for special treatment for themselves, abused OPD staff, interfered in day to day operations, and sought confidential records. The only reason Kirkpatrick was fired was because she blew the whistle.”
Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker, in a statement, thanked the jurors for their service and said the damages awarded are an amount the city was already prepared to give to Kirkpatrick. Because she was fired without cause, Kirkpatrick was eligible under her contract to receive severance pay. That would have required her to sign an agreement not to sue the city. Instead, Kirkpatrick refused the compensation and filed a lawsuit.
“After weighing the facts of the case, the jury decided Ms. Kirkpatrick is not entitled to any more than the one-year severance the city was ready and willing to pay when she was terminated in 2020,” Parker said.
The verdict will be discussed at a future Police Commission meeting, Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele said Friday. “We respectfully disagree with the verdict and will be reviewing the matter with counsel and agendizing the matter at a future meeting to determine the commissions’ formal response,” Milele said.
Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition on Police Accountability, which along with other activists called for Kirkpatrick’s firing after her decision in the Pawlik case, said the former chief “never took responsibility for own demise—ever.”
“I can only conclude that the city put on a very weak case because there was certainly adequate justification to terminate her contract based on her performance,” Grinage said.