Rank-and-file officers in the Oakland Police Department have long complained that the process for doling out discipline when an officer screws up isn’t fair. In departmental surveys year after year, they’ve said that the lower one’s rank is, the more aggressively internal affairs will go after them for alleged misdeeds, and the worse their punishment will end up being.
Meanwhile, officers say, popular members of the department get off lightly and members of command staff aren’t always held accountable when they violate rules.
The turmoil currently roiling OPD lends credence to these views.
On Thursday, Chief LeRonne Armstrong was placed on administrative leave by Mayor Sheng Thao following the publication of a highly critical report that showed Armstrong failed to hold a sergeant accountable for leaving the scene of a car collision they were involved in—in other words, a hit-and-run.
The sergeant, who multiple sources close to the police department identified to The Oaklandside as Michael Chung, was facing possible termination. But the head of OPD’s internal affairs, Captain Wilson Lau, inappropriately ordered Chung’s investigators to downgrade their findings so that Chung would face only a slap on the wrist.
Lau’s actions, and Armstrong’s sign-off on the lax discipline for Chung, were likely to go unnoticed without outside intervention. But later, Chung fired his gun in an elevator at OPD headquarters and tried to cover up the bizarre shooting incident by throwing evidence—the bullet’s shell casing—off the Bay Bridge.
The gunshot incident came to the attention of the police department’s federal monitor Robert Warshaw, and the city hired outside investigators to review both the gunshot case and the earlier car collision.
The outside investigators founds that Lau and Armstrong took steps to allow Chung to avoid responsibility for the car crash, highlighting one of OPD’s most deep-seated problems. The department’s internal affairs unit has struggled for decades to prove that it can fairly and vigorously investigate police misconduct and ensure that all officers, regardless of their rank or social standing, are appropriately punished for violating OPD rules or breaking the law.
In December, after reviewing how Armstrong and Lau handled Chung’s case, Warshaw found OPD out of compliance with Task 5 of its 20-year-old reform agreement, which requires OPD to ensure all police misconduct cases are properly handled. In his report, Warshaw wrote that the two OPD officials’ actions “call into question the integrity of the internal investigatory process.”
Now, Armstrong’s potential ouster and other revelations about the cases involving Chung could scuttle OPD’s hopes of ending federal oversight later this year.
Some City Councilmembers have signaled that they plan to take action based on this latest report. Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas emailed a press statement today saying that recent events “stress the urgent need” to move the function of investigating police misconduct entirely out of OPD and giving this power solely to the civilian led police commission.
“OPD should not investigate its own officers’ misconduct,” Bas’ said in her statement.
An unfair discipline system
Rank-and-file officers have long complained that the severity of discipline is more a matter of who an officer knows or their rank than what they actually might have done wrong.
In 2014, an internal survey showed many Oakland cops felt that the internal affairs unit was too aggressive in going after the average officer, creating a “culture of fear” in the department.
More recent exit interviews with officers who left OPD over the past couple of years show that many officers feel that discipline in Oakland is “too heavy” and that some officers are dissatisfied with the department’s leadership.
A 2020 study of racial disparities showed that Black officers face harsher discipline than officers of other races in the department. The study also included a survey which showed majorities of officers from all racial groups strongly disagreeing with the statement that OPD’s discipline process is fair. And over 75% of officers agreed that a person’s “rank plays a factor in determining the outcome of an internal investigation.”
In August 2022, another internal survey by the department’s inspector general found that a majority of OPD officers still believed that a person’s rank has more influence on an investigation’s findings and the level of discipline they face than any other factor. Officers of all races felt that the discipline process was unfair and that rank and popularity had more to do with outcomes than their ethnicity.
A popular officer who ran the department’s flashy new drone unit
Michael Chung, the officer at the center of the two cases that led to Chief Armstrong being placed on leave, is a well-liked sergeant, according to several sources close to the department who confirmed his identity to The Oaklandside.
Chung is also closely connected to Wilson Lau, the internal affairs commander who reduced the discipline Chung was facing.
Chung was hired by OPD in 2013 and promoted to sergeant in 2019, according to payroll data. His compensation in 2020, the most recent year for which the data is available, was $497,000, including a $150,000 salary and over $200,000 in overtime pay.
In 2016, Chung joined the board of the Oakland Asian Police Officers Association, a nonprofit that “brings Asian community organizations together to provide crime awareness” and “help the community work with the Oakland Police Department,” according to the group’s tax returns. At the time, Lau was the president of the group, and Chung joined as secretary. By 2019, Chung succeeded Lau as president.
The full extent of their relationship isn’t known, and Lau did not return a phone call from The Oaklandside for this story. Attempts to contact Chung via telephone and email were not successful.
The police department said in an email to The Oaklandside that it cannot confirm whether Chung is the sergeant under scrutiny in both cases, but OPD did tell us that Chung is currently on paid administrative leave, a step that’s normally taken when an officer is under investigation for misconduct and facing discipline.
In March 2022, Chung took command of a new high-profile unit within OPD, commanding the department’s small but growing fleet of drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles were donated to OPD by local businessman David Duong, whose company, California Waste Solutions, is the city’s recycling contractor, and by the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council, a newly established community benefits district serving Chinatown.
At a press conference announcing the drone gifts, city business leaders praised Chung and his officers for their service to Chinatown and other communities that were facing upticks in violent crime.
Around the same time Chung was establishing OPD’s drone unit, his hit-and-run case was being closed by Armstrong and Lau. Rather than firing him for leaving the scene of a collision that damaged a parked car and not reporting it to the San Francisco police, Chung was found only to have violated a department rule that officers should avoid getting into preventable crashes. He was given counseling and training as his only form of discipline.
Then, in April 2022, Chung fired his service gun inside a freight elevator, damaging the wall of the lift. The reason for the shooting, which does not appear to have injured or been aimed at anyone, is currently unclear. It became the subject of intense speculation within the department for over a week before Chung admitted it was his fault, setting in motion the outside investigation that would reveal the chief and internal affairs commander’s actions to minimize negative impacts on Chung.
What’s next for OPD’s efforts to get out from federal oversight?
The city and police department are scheduled to appear before U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick, who oversees federal monitoring of OPD, on Jan. 24 to discuss OPD’s progress with its reform program.
Last May, Orrick noted that OPD had made good progress under Armstrong’s leadership and signed off on an agreement that would allow the department to regain its full independence as early as May 2023—if it proved it could sustain the reforms it has undertaken.
This week, Orrick opted to make public the report about Armstrong and Lau’s actions that allowed Chung to escape responsibility for serious misconduct. He wrote that his purpose in doing so was to have “greater public transparency and accountability for OPD to ensure that the cultural change necessary for compliance … governing this matter is achieved.”
Whether Armstrong will remain chief is unclear.
For now, Assistant Chief Darren Allison is OPD’s acting chief. Lau left OPD before the investigation into his conduct was completed and now works as a captain in the East Bay Regional Park District’s police agency.