A new report made public today by the federal judge overseeing the Oakland Police Department’s reform efforts cast doubt on whether the troubled agency will be able to get out from federal oversight any time soon.
The report, written by a law firm retained by the city of Oakland, examined two cases of police misconduct—a hit and run in San Francisco that involved an OPD sergeant and an officer, and a later case in which the same Sergeant shot his gun in an elevator at OPD’s headquarters.
According to the report, OPD’s handling of both incidents “exposed systemic deficiencies in the Department’s ability to investigate misconduct of its members.” The department’s captain of internal affairs at the time inappropriately tried to “minimize the findings of the hit-and-run investigation so that the sergeant wouldn’t be fired.”
One of the most damning findings in the report is directed at Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, who was found to have violated department rules for failing to hold subordinate officers accountable for misconduct, failing to review the record of an inadequate investigation, and allowing officers to escape discipline.
A hit-and-run that was never reported
The hit-and-run happened in March 2021 when the unnamed sergeant and an officer got into an OPD-owned Chevrolet Tahoe in a parking garage at the sergeant’s San Francisco residence. While driving, the sergeant struck another car and tore its bumper off. The sergeant stopped the SUV for about five seconds, but neither he nor the officer got out before they drove away. The sergeant and officer did not report the collision to the San Francisco police.
Two months later, the city of Oakland received an insurance claim from the owner of the damaged car. OPD became aware of the collision in July when a lieutenant was asked to identify the vehicle and driver based on surveillance footage that showed the crash and the sergeant and officer leaving the scene. Once the sergeant was identified, the lieutenant ordered him to file a report with the San Francisco police.
In October, OPD opened an internal investigation to determine if the sergeant and officer had violated department rules by hitting the parked car, leaving the scene of the collision, and failing to report it. During this investigation, an insurance estimator who was interviewed told OPD that it would have been impossible for the sergeant and officer not to have heard the collision.
The internal affairs investigator also discovered that the two were in a romantic relationship. Such relationships are supposed to be reported so that a commanding officer is never put in a position of supervising someone they’re dating, but neither disclosed this to OPD.
In the end, the investigator determined that the sergeant had violated OPD’s rule against obeying all laws by committing a preventable collision and a hit-and-run. They also called into question the credibility of the sergeant and officer because neither was forthcoming about what happened. However, the investigator stopped short of finding that they had lied.
But the captain of internal affairs, who at the time, according to OPD records, was Wilson Lau, ordered the investigator to revise their report so that the sergeant was no longer found to have committed a hit and run. Lau also ordered that the officer not be considered a subject of the investigation but rather just a witness. The captain also had the report state that both the sergeant and officer were credible and truthful. He removed references to the fact that they were dating and hadn’t reported it.
After elevator gunshot, evidence was thrown off the Bay Bridge
This might have been the end of the case, but in April 2022, the same sergeant was in a freight elevator at OPD’s headquarters in downtown Oakland when he fired his gun. The report doesn’t say whether it was accidental or intentional, but the bullet struck the side of the elevator.
The next day another officer noticed the gunshot mark, and an investigation was launched. Video footage was scoured to try to identify the officer, and the shooting “became a subject of department-wide chatter and speculation,” according to the new report.
More than a week after the shooting, the sergeant admitted it was his fault, and he told investigators that he gathered the shell casing from his gun and threw this evidence off the Bay Bridge as he was driving home to San Francisco in a department-issued vehicle. The sergeant was placed on leave, and a criminal investigation was opened.
The fact that the same sergeant had been involved in the hit-and-run and the gunshot incident caused the city to bring in independent investigators to examine both cases. The Clarence Dyer & Cohen law firm conducted the review, which resulted in the new report. They interviewed 14 witnesses and examined emails, cellphone records, videos and photographs, and OPD documents.
“A failure of leadership”—and possibly more federal oversight
The investigators with Clarence Dyer & Cohen soon determined that both of OPD’s investigations into the actions of the sergeant were deficient. Some of the shortcomings were due to OPD officers not following department procedures that are supposed to ensure thorough and fair reviews of police misconduct. But “most disturbingly,” the attorney also wrote, “some of the deficits appear to stem from a failure of leadership and a lack of commitment to hold members of the Oakland Police Department accountable for violations of its own rules.”
The revisions that Internal Affairs Division Captain Wilson Lau ordered his investigator to make in the car crash case were inappropriate, according to the outside attorneys. The OPD investigator who made the revisions told the attorneys he had to follow Lau’s orders but that he felt the changes “minimized the severity of the misconduct and allowed the sergeant to avoid the appropriate consequences for his actions.”
Lau is no longer employed by the Oakland Police Department, according to city records. He is currently a captain with the East Bay Regional Park District police. The Oaklandside left a message with his office, but he did not immediately respond.
The Oaklandside was unable to determine the identity of the sergeant and officer. The Oakland Police Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the new report.
The outside law firm that investigated the cases summarized the problem, writing in their report, “The actions of one officer who twice violated the simple rule to self-report one’s misconduct launched independent investigations which revealed systemic failures far larger and more serious than the actions of one police officer.”
The cases and how OPD mishandled them could delay the department’s exit from federal court oversight. Last year, U.S. Judge William Orrick ordered that OPD had completed enough of its 20-year-old reform program that it could be a “sustainability period” of one year to prove it can maintain the reforms. OPD was hoping to have the judge sign off on the reforms later this year.
Late last year, OPD’s federal monitor Robert Warshaw, reported to Orrick for the first time about the mishandled cases. Although he didn’t disclose anything about them, he wrote in a public report that they were deeply troubling. And in December, Warshaw found OPD out of compliance with Task 5 of its reform program, which requires the department to thoroughly and fairly conduct internal misconduct investigations.
“The sustainability period from my point of view should be revoked,” said Jim Chanin, an attorney who represents Oaklanders who had their civil rights violated by OPD and is party to the federal oversight case. “The main problem with this department is with the leadership. It’s a command failure.”
The new report also is critical of Chief LeRonne Armstrong for allowing the flawed internal affairs investigation to be closed with very little review. According to the attorneys, when the internal affairs investigator presented his findings for the vehicle collision case to the chief in December 2021, Armstrong “did not permit extensive discussion of the case and did not request that the video be shown, instead quickly approving the recommended sustained finding and signing the final [record of investigation] without reading it.”
“Investigators recommended that the Department sustain Manual of Rules violations against the Chief of Police for failing to hold his subordinate officers to account, for failing to engage effectively in the review of the incident and for allowing the subject officer to escape responsibility for serious misconduct,” the report states.
The city and police department are due in court before Orrick on January 31.