Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong (left) is being supported by groups including the Oakland NAACP. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland’s embattled Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong told a large crowd of supporters at a rally today on the steps of the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse that he expects to be vindicated and reinstated.

“This is Oakland. If you want to pick a fight with somebody, Oakland is the wrong place to do it,” he said in a short, emotional speech. “I’m from West Oakland. I won’t pick a fight, but I’m not running from one.”

Armstrong’s supporters held signs stating “Bring Armstrong Back” and “Chief Armstrong matters” and chanted “Fight!” urging him not to accept being placed on leave and to oppose any efforts to discipline or fire him that might be coming.

Armstrong was placed on administrative leave by Mayor Sheng Thao last week following the publication of a report that blamed him for a breakdown of the discipline process in a police misconduct case involving a sergeant who was in a hit-and-run car crash and other questionable incidents.

Since then, Armstrong has retained an attorney and a crisis communications consultant, and accused the Oakland Police Department’s federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, of acting “in the interest of his own pocketbook by manufacturing a false crisis to justify extending his lucrative monitoring contract.”

Warshaw, a longtime police management consultant and former police chief of Rochester, New York, oversees OPD’s compliance with the 20-year-old federal reform program Oakland agreed to after the Riders scandal. He ordered the city to hire an independent law firm to investigate the March 21, 2021 hit-and-run case and a separate incident in which the same police sergeant fired his gun in an elevator at OPD headquarters and threw away evidence of the shooting. The law firm found that Armstrong didn’t read the resulting investigative report and signed off on lax discipline for the sergeant.

Armstrong’s supporters, including pastors, business leaders, and several current and former elected officials, reject claims that he did anything wrong and say that the chief’s reputation is being unfairly impugned.

The decision to keep or fire Armstrong could be made by either Thao, the police commission, or monitor Warshaw.

Armstrong’s supporters include the Oakland NAACP, faith leaders, 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and others

Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

“LeRonne is a man of integrity,” Reverend Jeremy McCants, the co-chair of the NAACP’s religious affairs committee and minister of prophetic justice at Allen Temple Baptist Church, said at today’s rally.

“We know that Chief LeRonne Armstrong has done nothing wrong,” said lobbyist Gregory McConnell, who was introduced as a consultant. “We strongly urge mayor Sheng Thao to allow due process and immediately reinstate Chief Armstrong. Moreover, we call on mayor Sheng Thao and City Attorney Barbara Parker to urge the federal judge to investigate the federal monitor Robert Warshaw.”

“We’ve reviewed all of the facts, we’ve read all of the reports, and we’ve come to the conclusion that our Chief LeRonne Armstrong has done absolutely, positively, unequivocally nothing wrong,” said Bishop Bob Jackson, the pastor emeritus of Acts Full Gospel Church.

The facts in this case are still developing. The report made public last week by U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick, who oversees OPD’s compliance with its reform program, was only a summary of the investigations into the alleged breakdown of the discipline process. According to city officials, there are several confidential investigative reports along with transcripts of interviews with 19 OPD officers that haven’t yet been made public. 

Mayor Thao said Saturday that her decision to place Armstrong on leave wasn’t a punishment and that she needs time to review those confidential reports before making any final decisions.

Other city officials aren’t waiting on more information.

At the rally, District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo said he’s known Armstrong for many years and that he doesn’t believe Armstrong did anything improper. Also in attendance was former District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor. Taylor sent an email to supporters of his mayoral campaign last week, calling Thao’s decision to put Armstrong on leave “shocking” and “excessive.”

“If I were Mayor, I would not have done it,” he wrote. Taylor finished second in the mayor’s race, behind Thao by 677 votes.

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, thanked Armstrong for supporting Chinatown over the past two years as violent crime increased in the community alongside concerns about anti-Asian violence. “He has done one special thing,” Chan said during the rally. “He has been bridging the gap to build trust between the OPD and the entire community. All this time, he said, ‘We have your back,’ but today it’s our turn to say we have your back!”

Clarence Baker of 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, an influential group of Black civic and business leaders, said Armstrong has been helping to address violent crime in Oakland. “He has recovered over 1400 guns off the street,” said Baker.

Gun violence has spiked in Oakland during Armstrong’s tenure as chief, but the trend is national, and his supporters say he’s done what he can to reorganize OPD to be more nimble in its response to violent crime. He’s also managed to bring the department into compliance with nearly all of the reform program’s tasks. 

A police chief accusing a department’s federal monitor of corruption

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong (center) with supporters Bishop Bob Jackson (left), and consultant Gregory McConnell (right). Credit: Darwin BondGraham

After today’s rally, The Oaklandside asked Armstrong about his comments earlier this week accusing Warshaw, an officer of a federal court, of corruption.

Armstrong suggested that Warshaw is improperly keeping Oakland under federal oversight to line his own pockets, “manufacturing a false crisis” to prevent Armstrong from completing the federally mandated reforms and thereby ending Warshaw’s paid contract with the city.

Does Armstrong think he can return to his position after making such an explosive allegation against a federally appointed watchdog?

Armstrong said the monitor and his investigators violated his rights by disclosing that he was facing discipline. State law protects police officers’ identities in misconduct cases. And Armstrong said he’s yet to contest this discipline, which is his right.

“How does [Warshaw] come back as monitor when he has made false allegations against me?” asked Armstrong.

Deep roots in the community

Armstrong received a standing ovation when he stepped to the podium. “As a kid born and raised in Oakland to a single mother, no father, to work to get to his point [and] to have it taken away from you hurts,” he said.

Born and raised in West Oakland, Armstrong experienced tragedy early on. His brother, Andre Gray, was shot and killed in the hallway of Oakland Technical High School at age 16 in 1985. Armstrong was 13 at the time and has said the incident was part of what made him want to become an OPD officer. 

Armstrong joined OPD around the same time that a group of West Oakland cops informally called the Riders were fired and put on trial for planting drugs on people and beating them. He was trained and rose through the ranks of OPD as it struggled to reform itself in the 2000s and early 2010s. 

Armstrong was elevated to police chief after Anne Kirkpatrick was fired in February 2020. Although the police commission and then-Mayor Libby Schaaf didn’t cite a reason for why they fired Kirkpatrick, it later came out in the former chief’s lawsuit against the city that the police commission wanted someone who could build more trust with Oakland communities, in particular Black Oaklanders. 

The commission was critical of Kirkpatrick for failing to respond to the concerns of the Oakland Black Officers Association, a group that advocates for African-American members of the department that counted Armstrong as a longtime member. OBOA accused Kirkpatrick of dismissing complaints that Black officers were being treated unfairly in the police academy and that they faced heavier discipline than other officers.

OPD also backslid on its federally mandated reforms during Kirkpatrick’s leadership.

Last year, Judge Orrick ruled that OPD could be placed on a one-year period to prove whether or not it can sustain the reforms. At the end of that year, the department could regain full independence and no longer be subject to oversight by a federal judge.

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.