The Oakland Police Department's emblem depicting a badge with a six-pointed star, City Hall, and ships at the port.
Credit: Amir Aziz

Earlier this year, a federal judge announced that the Oakland Police Department was finally on a path to completing a mandated reform program that began nearly 20 years ago following the Riders scandal, a case in which West Oakland cops beat and planted drugs on people. It appeared that the department could be released from federal oversight sometime in early 2023, if OPD could keep up the good work.

But newly unearthed problems lurking in the department could set back this timeline.

In his most recent report, OPD’s federal monitor Robert Warshaw revealed that two disciplinary matters came to his attention in May that call into question the department’s ability to thoroughly and fairly investigate police misconduct cases. 

“Information that has been developed to date regarding the Department’s internal investigation and discipline process is deeply troubling,” Warshaw wrote in a report filed with the federal court on Monday. 

While Warshaw did not disclose details about the two cases, he did write that the matters have been referred to an outside law firm to conduct a full investigation.

Warshaw also said that OPD is no longer in compliance with Task 5 of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, the department’s reform roadmap. Task 5 requires OPD to thoroughly investigate misconduct complaints against police officers. Warshaw’s finding is a setback for the department, which has been under federal court oversight since 2003.

On Thursday, civil rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin filed a brief with U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick in advance of an upcoming court hearing in OPD’s federal oversight case. Burris and Chanin—who represented the over 100 Oakland residents whose 2000 lawsuit was settled by putting the department under federal oversight—compared the finding in the most recent monitor’s report to a similar disclosure federal Judge Thelton Henderson made in 2016, just before the explosive “Celeste Guap” sex trafficking abuse case came to light and derailed OPD’s earlier attempts to get out from under federal oversight.

In May of 2016, Henderson wrote in an order that OPD’s mishandling of the sex trafficking case, in which a teenage girl was abused by multiple Bay Area police officers, including an OPD officer who committed suicide, raised “most serious concerns that may well impact Defendants’ ability to demonstrate their commitment to accountability and sustainability—both of which are key to ending court oversight.”

Henderson found OPD out of compliance with Task 5 at that time as well. After the department’s egregious handling of the sex trafficking case was fully revealed, it took years for OPD to come back into compliance.

Since assuming command of the department last year, Chief LeRonne Armstrong has made strides in fulfilling several of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement’s tasks. In February, OPD was finally able to reach compliance with Task 5 again. And earlier this year, when Judge Orrick allowed OPD to enter a one-year sustainability period to prove it is ready to exit federal oversight, the department only had two of 52 total NSA tasks outstanding.

Burris and Chanin wrote in their report this week that while they are not privy to what is going wrong in the department, they expect to learn more once the outside law firm completes its review.

“[T]he limited revelation that these matters might impact the department’s internal investigation and discipline process in a ‘deeply troubling’ matter is cause for extreme concern, and echoes some of the catastrophic failures that were cataloged in the Swanson Report,” they wrote, referring to Edward Swanson, an outside attorney who meticulously revealed how OPD covered up the 2016 sex trafficking case.

The Oakland Police Department told The Oaklandside that they cannot reveal any details about the two disciplinary matters mentioned in Warshaw’s report because the investigations are ongoing. 

But the department’s spokesperson Paul Chambers wrote in an email that the misconduct cases don’t involve any uses of force, dishonesty, or sexual misconduct. “Until the investigations are complete, we will not know what, if any, violations might be sustained,” he wrote.

As to whether the cases and the way OPD handled them will interfere with the department’s fervent desire to get out from under the watchful eye of the federal monitor and judge, Chambers wrote, “OPD remains confident that it is still on track to complete the sustainability period” and bring oversight to an end.

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.