Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said Saturday, Jan. 21 that she's waiting to learn more before deciding whether or not to fire Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong’s fate in this job hangs in the balance. 

The chief was placed on leave Thursday by Mayor Sheng Thao following the publication of a scathing report that showed he allowed the captain of internal affairs to reduce discipline for a popular sergeant who was involved in a hit-and-run.

Thao said Saturday morning at a press conference outside City Hall that administrative leave is “not a disciplinary action” and that Armstrong has been taken temporarily off the job to provide “an opportunity to more fully review the findings of the reports.”

The mayor said she expects to obtain additional documents about the police misconduct cases in question and will review them before making a final decision to keep or fire Armstrong. She didn’t elaborate on what else she needs to learn.

But the mayor isn’t the only one who can fire Armstrong. 

The police commission can also terminate the chief on its own if its members cite a reason. And OPD’s federal court monitor Robert Warshaw, who has overseen the department for over a decade, can also fire the chief. Neither the commission nor Warshaw have said anything publicly about their plans.

By placing Armstrong on leave, Thao told reporters she’s sending a message that she will hold anyone accountable for wrongdoing in order to comply with the nearly 20-year-old federal court reform agreement.

“Under this administration, there will be no differential kind of treatment, whether you are the chief or rank-and-file,” she said.

Her message appears to be strongly directed toward federal Judge William Orrick, who oversees Oakland’s compliance with its reform program that has been in place since 2003. OPD was put under federal court oversight as a result of the Riders case, in which a squad of West Oakland cops was accused of beating up and planting drugs on suspects in 2000.

The city and police department are scheduled to appear in federal court next week to discuss the department’s progress in making reforms.

OPD’s investigation was quietly squashed. Then, the federal court monitor got involved

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last Wednesday, Orrick made public a report drafted by the law firm Clarence Dyer Cohen, which was commissioned by the Schaaf administration to examine the mishandling of a police misconduct case. 

That case involved a sergeant, Michael Chung, who crashed an OPD vehicle into a parked car in a parking garage in San Francisco, ripping the bumper off the car. Chung left the scene of the collision without reporting it to the police—a hit-and-run. With him in the OPD vehicle was another Oakland police officer, who he was dating.

OPD’s internal affairs unit—a group of officers tasked with investigating allegations of wrongdoing by their colleagues—opened an investigation into the collision after the City Attorney’s office let them know that an insurance examiner had contacted them about it. 

This investigation found that Chung committed a hit-and-run, but the captain of internal affairs, Wilson Lau, ordered his investigators to alter their findings so that Chung wouldn’t be fired. Instead, Chung was given counseling and training as his only form of discipline.

Armstrong didn’t read the internal affairs report or question Lau and the investigator about its findings. He simply signed off on the plan.

Later, Chung was involved in a separate, bizarre incident in which he shot at the inside wall of an elevator at OPD headquarters and attempted to cover up the shooting by throwing the shell casing off the Bay Bridge.

When OPD’s federal monitor Robert Warshaw learned that the gunshot case involved the same officer who was in the hit-and run, he ordered the city to conduct an independent review of both investigations. Then-Mayor Schaaf hired the Clarence Dyer Cohen law firm to look into it.

Thao said today that the law firm’s report caught her partly by surprise. She had a conversation about it a week ago, she said, but she didn’t identify who the conversation was with. She told reporters at today’s press conference that she got the law firm’s report at the same time the public did.

As to whether or not an end to federal monitoring of OPD is still in sight, the city will learn more next week when it goes to court.

“We were finally moving forward under a period of probation and I want to give a lot of credit to the officers, the community members, and the leaders who helped all of us get to this point. And that includes Chief Armstrong,” said Thao. “It’s important that we take the corrective action that’s needed to make sure that we stay on track to ensure that we get out of this oversight.”

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.