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

After convening for about two hours in closed session Thursday night, the Oakland Police Commission announced that it plans to take control of the case against Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong.

Armstrong was placed on administrative leave on January 19 following the release of a highly critical report that showed he signed off on mild discipline for a sergeant who had committed a hit-and-run and later fired his gun in an elevator at OPD’s headquarters. 

Outside investigators with the Clarence Dyer Cohen law firm were hired by the city to carry out an independent investigation. They wrote in their publicly available summary report that Armstrong didn’t read OPD’s internal affairs file about Chung’s hit-and-run or ask questions about the case during a meeting with other senior staff. This was after the captain of internal affairs, Wilson Lau, inappropriately ordered a department investigator to strike several findings from his report so that the sergeant, Michael Chung, wouldn’t be fired. Chung instead received counseling and driver’s training.

Chung, according to investigative records leaked to The Oaklandside, was in charge of OPD’s crime-fighting operations in Chinatown. Armstrong, according to a KTVU report about other leaked confidential files, was “not credible” when he claimed he didn’t know the details of the hit-and-run case.

Will Armstrong face discipline?

Members of the Oakland Police Commission accounced Thursday night they will set up a discipline committee to consider whether Chief Armstrong should face discipline for allegedly mishandling an internal affairs case and giving statements to outside investigators that were deemed “not credible.” Credit: screenshot Oakland Police Commission meeting via Zoom

Three different parties have the power to fire Armstrong if they so choose: Mayor Sheng Thao, the department’s federal court monitor Robert Warshaw, or the police commission.

The police commission, which is tasked with overseeing OPD, asked the city for the confidential investigative files on Jan. 26 but was ignored, Police Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele said at Thursday’s meeting.

“From the beginning, the commission has asked for all documents relevant to this matter and has been consistently ignored by the city, OPD, and the monitor,” she said. “This isn’t surprising as the role of the commission has been minimized.”

Milele said that the commissioners voted in closed session to “expand” their request to the city and OPD for all the relevant records needed to understand the turmoil within the department and the allegations against Armstrong. According to Milele, the commission has been given two batches of documents and expects to receive a third file soon.

Mayor Sheng Thao told the media last month that she placed Armstrong on leave not as a punishment but as a temporary measure while she also considers the records and makes a decision.

But in setting up a discipline committee, the commission signaled that it is aiming to take control of the Armstrong case.

Under the city charter, the police commission has the power to set up discipline committees in special circumstances to make final decisions about whether or not a police officer, including the chief, should be punished for violating city rules. One such set of circumstances is when neither OPD’s internal affairs nor the police commission’s civilian investigative agency, known as CPRA, has opened an investigation into alleged misconduct by an officer.

“We know we have investigations which have been conducted—but by the monitor. He’s not OPD. He’s not CPRA,” the commission’s attorney said at Thursday’s meeting. He said this gives the commission the authority to set up a discipline committee where they can review the record and make a final decision about Armstrong.

“This means the commission can exercise its own authority over the matters,” said Milele. “The commission’s power to fire [the chief] includes the authority to impose discipline short of firing, or no discipline at all.”

Milele said the commission plans to move quickly, especially because of U.S. District Judge William Orrick’s order that representatives for Oakland return to his courtroom on April 4 with a plan for how the city will handle the misconduct cases involving Armstrong and Chung and reach eventual compliance with the department’s reform program, which Orrick oversees.

The commission plans to hold another closed session meeting Monday, and Milele said they will also meet with Thao.

Correction: a misspelling of Oakland Police Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele’s name has been corrected. We regret this error.

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.