The Oakland police sergeant at the heart of a chain of events that has led to Oakland’s police chief being placed on leave wasn’t just any officer. Confidential documents recently shared with The Oaklandside paint a more complete—and more troubling—picture than has been previously reported.
As The Oaklandside previously reported, Sergeant Michael Chung was in a hit-and-run collision in 2021 that was papered over by OPD. In early 2022, he shot the wall of an elevator at OPD headquarters in a bizarre incident that sparked an outside investigation into how the prior car collision case was handled by internal affairs. The Oaklandside has obtained portions of the confidential investigations conducted by an outside law firm that examined OPD’s handling of these incidents.
We have now learned that Chung was also in charge of a high-profile operation to provide extra police patrols in Chinatown, as well as OPD’s new drone unit, which was paid for by a wealthy city contractor through Chinatown’s recently established business improvement district. Chung led this work last year during a time of increased violence in Oakland’s Asian-American communities—and increased calls for policing and surveillance in those communities as the city’s elected officials and Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong debated whether calls to “defund” OPD had gone too far.
Until now, only Mayor Sheng Thao, members of the police commission, OPD command staff, the department’s federal monitor, the plaintiffs’ attorneys who are part of the police department’s federal oversight program, and a few other officials have had access to these files, which may be considered confidential under state law and protected by an order of a federal judge.
What are these secret files, and what’s in them?
Although the files we obtained are meant to remain secret, as a news outlet, we have chosen to lawfully report on some of what they contain to serve the public’s interest in understanding some of the events that have led to OPD stumbling in its attempt to finish its federal oversight program, and Chief Armstrong being placed on administrative leave.
The files, mailed anonymously to The Oaklandside, aren’t complete. One file, containing information about how OPD command staff, including Chief Armstrong and former Captain of Internal Affairs Wilson Lau, allegedly steered the car crash case to a conclusion that protected Chung, appears to be missing more than 40 of its 50-plus total pages. But the anonymous source sent all 31 pages of the investigation of Chung’s firearms discharge in an OPD elevator.
While these documents don’t reveal much new about the allegations Armstrong is facing, they do help paint a picture of Chung and his importance to OPD. He is a young sergeant who was working long hours and earning hundreds of thousands per year in overtime.
And the Chinatown patrols and drone program he led were earning OPD the support of influential community groups, especially the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed back against calls to defund the police in response to the 2020 racial justice protests.
The records provide more information about a number of questionable practices by OPD, including how officers working with Chung used their personal cell phones to communicate about police matters, something that is against department policy.
They also show that outside investigators found it troubling that officers accused of crimes and violating department rules are allowed by the city to be represented by the same police union attorney, potentially compromising the department’s ability to find the truth.
A debate about public safety in Oakland, and an OPD special operation in Chinatown
In early 2021, many in Oakland’s Chinatown and broader Asian-American communities were grieving, angry, and scared. Several assaults and robberies harming Asian-American residents and businesses, some caught on camera, alarmed longtime community members. The police department recorded an increase in crimes in the neighborhood. And nationally, hate crimes against Asian Americans had increased.
Some prominent Asian-American leaders in Oakland were calling for more police in Chinatown and criticizing members of the City Council who had supported efforts to reroute money out of the Oakland Police Department toward civilian violence intervention efforts.
After the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in Kentucky, police officers and their supporters had been on the defensive in the national and local debate about public safety. The Oakland City Council voted to seek major reductions in OPD’s budget in 2021 and future years through a “reimagining public safety” task force.
But the police and their supporters pushed back and demanded the level of resources they were accustomed to. Violence in Chinatown became one of their biggest rallying points.
In one of many public clashes, then-Mayor Libby Schaaf, a longtime supporter of OPD, held a press conference in February 2021 in Chinatown after a video of a 91-year-old man being pushed to the ground by an assailant went viral. (Later reporting in this outlet and elsewhere clarified that the victim in this incident was Latino, not Asian-American.)
Schaaf criticized members of Oakland’s city council, including Council President and District 2 representative Nikki Fortunato Bas, saying she proposed cuts to the Oakland Police Department’s budget the year before—cuts that called for reducing patrols in Chinatown, among other things. Bas replied the same day in a Facebook video that those cuts never happened, saying it was Schaaf who cut OPD’s budget a few months before because of the city’s budget crisis. (In a way, both were right.)
Armstrong interjected himself into the debate numerous times, holding press conferences in 2021 after members of Oakland’s Asian-American communities were attacked. He told reporters, “We know suspects have come to Chinatown to specifically target Asian victims,” but said it was hard for OPD to respond to emergency calls because of a lack of resources.
In March, after a 75-year-old Asian man was killed following a robbery in Adams Point, Armstrong told reporters that his officers would “relentlessly pursue those that violate the most vulnerable members in our community.” And in June, after the City Council voted to redirect $18 million from OPD’s proposed budget increase and give this to the new civilian Department of Violence Prevention, Armstrong appeared on Fox News to protest the council’s decision, calling it “idealistic” but harmful.
“It’s clear that we need these resources that she’s taken away and given to the Department of Violence Prevention,” he said of City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas.
Oakland leaders continued to argue over the hot-button issue, and in July 2021, after several more violent robberies and assaults—including one in which a man attacked Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan—the chamber convened another press conference to demand more police. Armstrong, then-District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, and the head of the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office appeared in Chinatown and told the media the police needed more support.
Some community groups opposed these calls for more police and harsher punishment. In a Twitter thread, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a nonprofit based in Oakland’s Chinatown with close ties to the neighborhood, characterized this as an effort by “politicians [to use] violence to call for $$ to police & to pit us against other communities of color.”
Nonetheless, in response to safety concerns in Chinatown, OPD launched a special program called the Chinatown Violence Suppression Initiative.
Sgt. Michael Chung was the “main organizer” of the Chinatown Violence Suppression Initiative, according to the confidential OPD files shared with The Oaklandside. Hired in 2012 and promoted to sergeant in 2019, Chung already had strong ties to Chinatown. As the President of the Oakland Asian Police Officers Association, he helped direct the nonprofit group’s activities in the community, which according to its tax records, is focused on helping “inform the community leaders about targeted crime situations and help the community work with the Oakland Police Department.”
As leader of OPD’s Chinatown Violence Suppression Initiative, Chung was in charge of coming up with crime-fighting strategies for the neighborhood and interacting with community leaders. He chose the roster of officers who worked in the neighborhood and made decisions on how to deploy them. And he signed off on officers’ overtime slips to ensure they were paid for the extra hours, as the program was funded mainly through overtime.
In the process, Chung became one of OPD’s highest-paid employees. In 2021, he was paid $492,000, including $276,000 in overtime. Figures for last year are not yet available.
Chung was friendly with the officers he supervised in Chinatown. One of his officers told investigators that he would drop into the sergeant’s office to discuss the overtime shifts, get his work slips signed, and “get snacks” and “chat about financial investments and stocks.” Another officer said he and others would visit Chung’s office to “talk about stocks and cryptocurrency.” His officers described him as normally a jovial and outgoing person.
Chung and officers he supervised told investigators that they frequently communicated over their personal cell phones about work, in violation of department policy. One officer told investigators that he “communicated with Sgt. Chung on Sgt. Chung’s personal cell phone regarding work matters using his personal cell phone.” This included discussions about where “Chung wanted the mobile command post placed in a certain area in Chinatown for high visibility.”
Another officer said he and Chung always communicated over their personal cell phones because he didn’t have Chung’s OPD-issued phone number. They discussed things like ATM break-ins, where to station OPD decoy cars, and other Chinatown patrol work.
Last March, Chung took on another high-profile role in the department as the leader of its new drone unit, which was established with drones purchased by local businessman David Duong, whose company, California Waste Solutions, is Oakland’s recycling contractor.
The department announced the drone program with a press conference at OPD headquarters featuring Chung, Duong, and the new Chinatown Improvement Council. Stewart Chen, the improvement council’s leader, told the media the program was created in direct response to the increase in robberies in Chinatown during the pandemic and the desire of local leaders to have more surveillance of the neighborhood.
OPD’s Chinatown initiative has continued to be of importance for the neighborhood, which is still facing serious incidents of violent crime. In January, the department pledged to add officers to the area during the Lunar New Year celebration.
A car crash in San Francisco and a gunshot in an elevator
Two events led to where we are today, with OPD faltering once more on its path to completing its 20-year-old federal reform program, and Chief LeRonne Armstrong on leave and facing possible termination.
In March 2021, just a week after OPD’s press conference announcing the new drone program, Chung was off duty and driving an OPD Chevy Tahoe in the parking garage of his San Francisco apartment building with his girlfriend, also an OPD officer, when he collided with a parked Mercedes, tearing its front bumper off.
Chung stopped his vehicle for about five seconds and then drove away. Neither he nor his girlfriend reported the collision to the San Francisco police. They didn’t report it to their supervisors at OPD, either. The department became aware of the collision when it received an insurance claim in May.
In July, an OPD lieutenant investigating the crash identified Chung as the driver. Three months later, the case was given to OPD Sgt. Chan Lee of internal affairs, who was tasked with determining if Chung broke any department rules. Lee interviewed an insurance estimator who told him the collision “would have made a loud sound that should have been heard inside the vehicle,” but Lee wrote in his report that it was “reasonable” that Chung might not have heard the collision. Outside investigators questioned this, writing in their reports that Lee should have characterized it as “possible,” not “reasonable.”
Lee later discovered that the person riding with Chung was Officer Kayla Brandwood and that neither Chung nor Brandwood had reported to the department the fact that they were dating, in violation of a policy that’s meant to prevent any officer from directly supervising someone they’re in a romantic relationship with. Brandwood had worked under Chung’s supervision as part of the Chinatown Violence Suppression Initiative. But by the time investigators interviewed her, Brandwood claimed she was no longer dating Chung, although the two of them were living together, and she would later help Chung when he was placed on leave for the gunshot incident.
When Lee finally interviewed Chung about the crash, Chung “gave statements that were inconsistent with his prior statements,” according to the investigation files. When Lee asked why Chung stopped his car for five seconds after the collision, Chung’s attorney, Jonathan Murphy, did not allow him to answer the question. And Lee didn’t ask about why Chung hadn’t reported his relationship with Brandwood.
In a separate interview, Brandwood, also under the advice of the same attorney, told Lee she didn’t recall the collision and “had no recollection of the day in question.”
When Lee drafted his report, he concluded that Chung broke the law by committing a hit-and-run and violated a department rule against getting into a preventable collision. For this, Chung could be fired. He also “called in question the credibility” of both Chung and Brandwood because their claims of not knowing they had collided with a car and not recalling other details didn’t seem plausible. But Lee didn’t find that either officer had lied, and he didn’t find that Brandwood violated any department policies.
Before the case was finalized, the then-captain of internal affairs, Wilson Lau, who had served for several years on the board of the Oakland Asian Officers Association with Chung, ordered Lee to revise his report so that Chung was only found to have violated the department’s rule against causing a preventable collision. Lau also ordered that Brandwood, whose grandfather was an OPD officer, not be treated as a subject of the investigation but instead as a witness.
According to the leaked records, when Lee presented his report at the “Chief’s Friday Meeting,” a weekly review of internal affairs cases by command staff, Chief Armstrong approved the reduced findings that Lau had ordered. Instead of being fired for committing a hit-and-run, Chung was only “ordered to participate in a driver’s training course.”
The Oaklandside was not provided with copies of the internal affairs files and statements from officers that would reveal more about whether or not Armstrong was aware he was signing off on an investigation that amounted to a slap on the wrist for Chung. Armstrong remains on administrative leave while the mayor, police commission, and others review these records.
No memory of a shooting
Chung was still leading the Chinatown initiative and OPD’s drone unit in April 2022 when he shot the wall of a freight elevator in OPD headquarters and tried to cover up the shooting by destroying evidence.
According to the leaked files reviewed by The Oaklandside, investigators determined that Chung was most likely alone and practicing drawing his gun when it went off in the elevator. They came to believe that, instead of coming forward and admitting his mistake, he tried to cover it up and concocted a story about trying to commit suicide in an effort to avoid being punished.
The Oaklandside attempted to reach Chung by email and telephone for comment but has not received a response.
Investigators reached this conclusion after considering the physical evidence as well as statements from over a dozen officers, as well as Chung’s statements, which they found to be untruthful.
Chung shot inside the elevator on April 16 or 17. He picked up the spent shell casing and threw it off the Bay Bridge after he got off work. He didn’t come forward as the person responsible for more than a week. When he finally did approach Lt. Joseph Turner, who was conducting a preliminary investigation of the incident, Chung told him he had been suicidal when he shot the elevator. Chung said he was experiencing “difficult financial circumstances.”
Turner called Officer Brandwood, knowing she was Chung’s girlfriend at the time. He asked her to take Chung home and to secure his firearms so that he wouldn’t harm himself, which she did.
At this time, OPD’s federal monitor Robert Warshaw became aware of the gunshot incident and that Chung was the same officer involved in the parking garage collision. Warshaw ordered the city to hire an outside law firm to investigate both cases and how OPD leaders, including Armstrong and Lau, had handled the car crash.
It wasn’t until November and December that the investigators with the Clarence Dyer and Cohen law firm were able to interview Chung, Brandwood, the officers Chung worked with, and officers and commanders who were responsible for the faulty car crash investigation.
Chung claimed he couldn’t remember anything about his gun going off in the elevator. He told investigators he had a vague memory of his ears ringing that night and a “flashback” memory of throwing a shell casing off the Bay Bridge, but he didn’t know why. He told investigators that it was over a week after the gunshot—when the whole department was chattering about the bizarre incident, and an investigation was underway—when he had an “epiphany” and realized he was responsible. When he finally came forward to Lt. Turner over a week later, he said he must have been attempting suicide.
The outside investigators didn’t believe him. “Sergeant Michael Chung was found to be not credible,” they wrote in their report. They called his loss of memory “patently implausible and self-serving.”
The investigators cited physical evidence, including the fact that the bullet entered the elevator wall at a 90-degree angle.
“His proffered explanation that he must have been attempting suicide inside the elevator—despite not being able to remember it—was pure conjecture and entirely inconsistent with the evidentiary record, which makes clear that the shoot was in a contact-ready position, pointing his firearm directly at the elevator wall in front of him,” they wrote. “Chung performed his normal duties but waited more than a week before coming forward to identify himself as the officer responsible for the discharge.”
Their conclusion was that Chung “was fully aware that he had discharged his firearm in the elevator and had taken steps to disrupt and alter the crime scene to clean up after his acts of extreme recklessness,” and that it was only after he “realized the list of suspects was narrowing” and he would likely be caught that he came forward.
The outside investigators found that Chung obstructed the internal affairs process, broke the law by firing his weapon in the Police Administration Building, falsely reported a mental illness, compromised a criminal investigation by destroying evidence, lied to OPD investigators, and committed other violations of department policy and the law.
Another concern about holding police officers accountable
Chung remains on administrative leave from OPD and has the right to contest these findings, including with help from his attorney.
But the outside investigators added one more criticism in their reports on OPD’s handling of the cases involving Chung.
They faulted the city for allowing Chung and Brandwood to be represented by the same attorney, Jonathan Murphy of the Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver law firm, a situation they said puts the city at a disadvantage in its attempts to hold police accountable for misconduct.
“This arrangement raised questions about whether the testimony of the subjects converged in a manner that benefits both subjects—especially when both subjects, represented by the same counsel, were the only participants in conversations with each other,” the investigators noted.
By allowing Chung and Brandwood to have the same lawyer, the outside investigators found that “the City of Oakland and its police department have tacitly undermined the full and independent discovery of record facts.”
City officials, including Mayor Thao and the police commission, who both have the power to fire or keep Armstrong as chief, are reviewing the confidential records, portions of which we relied on for this report. It’s unclear when they’ll make a final decision. Thao declined to discuss the situation with media yesterday during a visit to Chinatown. The police commission will discuss the cases and Armstrong’s fate in a closed-session meeting Thursday.