Latest news: Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong fired by Mayor Sheng Thao
This story was updated on Feb. 13 at 12:50 p.m. to note that the Police Commission has rescheduled their meeting from Monday to Wed., Feb. 15 at 5:30 p.m.
Should Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong be fired or allowed to keep his job?
That’s the question the city’s police commission and Mayor Sheng Thao are considering right now.
To reach a decision, the mayor and commissioners have separately been poring over confidential investigative records showing how Armstrong and other OPD leaders handled a police misconduct case involving Michael Chung, a popular sergeant who left the scene of a car crash he caused and never reported. Almost a year later, Chung fired his gun in a police headquarters elevator and tried to cover up the shooting.
Thao placed Armstrong on administrative leave last month. Her decision came after the federal judge who oversees OPD’s reform program published a scathing report that concluded the chief failed to hold Chung accountable for the hit-and-run. But this report was only a 15-page summary of the sprawling investigations by an outside law firm to try to get to the bottom of what happened. It provided few specifics as to why investigators found Armstrong and other OPD officers at fault in their handling of Chung’s discipline case.
Last week, The Oaklandside reported on the details of the law firm’s 31-page confidential report about the elevator gunshot incident, a document that was provided to us by an anonymous source. It shed light on Chung’s role in the department as the leader of a high-profile Chinatown crime suppression operation. It also hinted at possible reasons why the captain of internal affairs, Wilson Lau, ordered his subordinates to recommend Chung not face serious discipline for the hit-and-run.
Now, The Oaklandside has obtained the complete 57-page confidential investigation report that describes in detail how some of OPD’s highest ranking officers, including Chief Armstrong and the captain of internal affairs, improperly papered over Chung’s hit-and-run incident. KTVU first reported some of the findings of this report, including that Armstrong was found to be “not credible” when he claimed to have very little knowledge of Chung’s misbehavior.
Although it’s confidential, we’re publishing the entire report, as is within our rights as a news outlet.
State law generally prohibits these types of police discipline reports from being made public. And there is a federal court protective order in place that is meant to keep this document secret by barring those who have official access from sharing it with others.
But the report lays out evidence of corruption at the highest levels of OPD’s internal accountability system. For this and other reasons, we believe the public should have access to this information, especially while the police commission and mayor are deliberating on what to do about the chief.
The full report is below. But first, some context and highlights
There are three reports that we know of, including the 15-page summary made public in January by U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick. The two confidential reports are the 31-page report examining Sgt. Chung’s firearms discharge in an OPD elevator and the 57-page report investigating how OPD handled the earlier investigation of Chung for the hit-and-run.
The confidential hit-and-run report recommends discipline for multiple officers. In the department’s language, an officer is “sustained” for a rules violation if there was sufficient evidence to prove the officer violated a policy or law. A finding of “unfounded” means there was sufficient evidence showing that the alleged violation did not occur. And a finding of “not sustained” means the investigators couldn’t determine whether or not the alleged conduct happened.
Chief Armstrong was sustained for gross dereliction of duty and performance of duty for failing to hold subordinate officers accountable and ensure OPD’s discipline process is thorough and fair. He and his attorneys have spoken publicly about these findings, telling reporters they disagree with them.
Captain Wilson Lau was sustained for failing to perform his duties as the leader of internal affairs, failing to ensure the vehicle collision investigation was properly handled, and failing to report violations of department rules. He quit OPD before the investigation was complete and took a job with the East Bay Regional Park District police but was placed on administrative leave recently, according to the district.
Lt. Omar Daza-Quiroz, who was Sgt. Chung’s supervisor, was sustained for violating his supervisory duties because he “coached [Chung] on how to minimize the severity of his misconduct” by showing him video footage of the car crash before directing Chung to report the crash to the San Francisco police. This also “undermined” OPD’s internal investigation. Daza-Quiroz also failed to report this violation of law and obstructed the internal affairs process.
Sgt. Chan Lee was sustained for failing to conduct a thorough investigation of the hit-and-run incident, although the investigators noted that he was “cowed” by his commanding officer, Wilson Lau, who “overruled and undermined” his work to ensure Chung was protected.
Multiple members of Armstrong’s command staff, including two deputy chiefs and a lieutenant who served as his chief of staff, gave statements that contradicted Armstrong’s claims. This was one of many reasons the investigators found Armstrong “not credible.” Even though they found the chief lacked credibility, the investigators didn’t sustain Armstrong for violating the department’s rule against lying.
The outside law firm’s attorneys wrote that several OPD officers, including command staff, obstructed them throughout their investigation. “Multiple members, both witnesses and subjects, were far from forthcoming. These members did not answer questions directly or claimed to ‘not recall’ things they clearly did remember but did not want to talk about.” This obfuscation, they wrote, revealed that OPD’s internal affairs division was “less interested in uncovering the truth and holding OPD [officers] accountable for misconduct than it was in thwarting the investigative process and protecting fellow OPD [officers].”
The investigators also were alarmed by how multiple OPD officers, including Armstrong, Chung, Lau, and Daza-Quiroz, were all represented by the same attorney from the same law firm. “This arrangement, with its multiple representations and conflicting duties of loyalty, had a corrosive effect on the fact-finding process and distinctly appeared to lead to a convergence among the responses of the officers to investigators’ questions,” they wrote. “There is little room for doubt that by permitting multiple representation of witnesses and subjects by the same lawyer or lawyers in the same law firm, the Oakland Police Department has tacitly undermined the full and independent discovery of record facts.”
The report is the first step in OPD’s discipline process, and its findings aren’t necessarily final. Officers who were “sustained” for violating department rules and laws can appeal these findings. It’s possible some of the findings in the report could be overturned later.
Who gets to decide whether to fire or keep the Oakland police chief?
It’s not clear that Armstrong can appeal the findings against him because he’s not a member of the Oakland Police Officers Association, the union that represents Oakland police. And even if he could appeal, it wouldn’t matter. As the chief, he’s an at-will employee.
Mayor Thao has the power to fire the chief on her own at any time and doesn’t need to cite a reason. The police commission can also fire him, but it needs an affirmative vote of five of its seven members, and they must cite a reason.
Last week, the commission announced that it plans to set up a discipline committee of three commissioners who will consider the evidence against Armstrong and make a decision. This committee will meet Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., and while their discussion will be held in closed session, the commissioners are required to give a public report on any actions they take at the end of the meeting.
Read the full report
Correction: The original version of this story stated that Wilson Lau was recently fired by the East Bay Regional Park District police. He has not been fired. Instead, he has been placed on paid administrative leave.