Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong lost his job on Feb. 15, 2023, after having served in the role for just over one year. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong is officially out.

Nearly a month after he was placed on administrative leave following the publication of a highly critical report that concluded Armstrong was responsible for a series of failures in the department’s discipline system, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao announced Wednesday afternoon she is firing him.

“Chief Armstrong has my respect and appreciation for his service to the Department and to the city that he grew up in and that he loves dearly,” Thao said in a statement to the press. “He will continue to have my respect and appreciation. But I am no longer confident that Chief Armstrong can do the work needed to achieve the vision.”

Thao said she based her decision on the findings of an outside investigation by the law firm Clarence Dyer Cohen. The investigation’s findings were summarized in a 15-page report made public in January by the federal judge who oversees OPD’s reform program. But the investigation also included three confidential reports that contained details about misconduct by multiple officers, including Armstrong. 

Thao said she also decided to fire Armstrong based on his reaction to the outside investigation and his denials that the law firm’s findings reflected serious problems in the department.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao at a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, announcing the firing of Police Chief Leronne Armstrong. To her right is Oakland’s Assistant Police Chief Darren Allison, who became acting chief after Armstrong was placed on leave last month. Credit: Amir Aziz

After he was placed on administrative leave—a move Thao said was not meant as a punishment—Armstrong hired a crisis consultant and attorney and publicly demanded his job back while criticizing the investigation.

He also attended a rally to demand his reinstatement, and he accused OPD’s federal court monitor Robert Warshaw of corruption, claiming Warshaw orchestrated the investigation in order to oust him and maintain his role for which he and his team are paid nearly $700,000 per year.

“In response to a public report that concluded that OPD had repeatedly failed to rigorously investigate misconduct and hold officers accountable, Chief Armstrong said these were not incidents where officers behaved poorly,” said Thao. “He stated that he did not believe these incidents reflected systemic problems.”

Thao said that after having a chance to review the confidential reports about the police misconduct cases, and how Armstrong handled these, she came to the conclusion there are “systemic issues” within OPD that need to be addressed.

Armstrong’s representative Sam Singer issued a statement in which Armstrong said he is “deeply disappointed” by Thao’s decision.

“After the relevant facts are fully evaluated by weighing evidence instead of pulling soundbites from strategically leaked, inaccurate reports, it will be clear I was a loyal and effective reformer of the Oakland Police Department,” Armstrong said in the statement. “It will be equally clear that I committed no misconduct, and my termination is fundamentally wrong, unjustified, and unfair. I anticipate releasing a more detailed statement soon once I have the chance to fully digest the Mayor’s remarks.”

Jim Chanin, one of the attorneys who sued OPD in 2000 for civil rights abuses and had the department placed under court oversight, said he thinks Thao’s decision is a “step in the right direction.”

“It shows the people at the top of Oakland’s government know what needs to be done and hopefully this example will spread to others in the police department’s command staff,” Chanin said. “The problem is not with the many fine people in the police department but rather with the leadership. We’re not looking for a perfect police department. We’re looking for one that knows how to fix its problems.”

John Burris, Chanin’s partner in the lawsuit that brought oversight to OPD, told KTVU he thinks Armstrong’s ouster was the wrong move and that he doesn’t think the outside investigation showed a lack of credibility by Armstrong, or serious mistakes.

“I didn’t see evidence of gross dereliction of duty,” he said.

A hit-and-run and gunshot in an elevator set in motion the chief’s ouster

In early 2022, Sgt. Michael Chung shot the wall of an elevator in OPD’s headquarters and tried to cover up the shooting by throwing the bullet’s shell casing off the Bay Bridge. He came forward a week later after the investigation into the bizarre incident was narrowing down a list of suspects that included him. 

When the shooting came to the attention of OPD’s federal court monitor Robert Warshaw, he ordered the city to hire an outside law firm to look into the case. One reason for hiring the law firm was that Chung had been involved in another disturbing episode the year before, but he hadn’t been seriously disciplined.

In 2021, Chung was driving an OPD vehicle in the parking garage of his San Francisco apartment building when he collided with a parked car, tearing its bumper off. Chung and Kayla Brandwood, another OPD officer who was in the car with him, did not report the collision. 

According to the outside investigators, Chung, who was the leader of a high-profile Chinatown crime suppression operation, was given preferential treatment by his supervisors at OPD. The head of OPD’s internal affairs at the time, Captain Wilson Lau, ordered an investigator to downgrade his findings against the sergeant so that Chung only faced counseling and driver’s training for the collision, rather than being fired over the hit-and-run. Armstrong approved of the lax discipline in Chung’s hit-and-run case.

According to the outside investigation, Armstrong knew details about Chung’s hit-and-run that should have led him to seek stronger discipline for the officer. Instead, Armstrong shut down any discussion of the case when it was presented in a meeting of his senior staff, and he signed off on the final report.

Little was known about the details of the hit-and-run, elevator shooting, and how Armstrong and other OPD officers mishandled these cases until last week when KTVU and The Oaklandside obtained and published parts of the confidential reports that Thao and others have had access to.

Oakland’s Police Commission is also considering the case against Armstrong

The city’s powerful Police Commission, which along with the mayor has the power to fire the police chief, is scheduled to hold a special closed-session meeting tonight. Last Friday, the commission said it would be considering discipline for Armstrong, including either firing him or imposing some kind of discipline short of that.

The commission’s intentions may now be moot given that Thao has acted. Thao said today that the commission didn’t act quickly enough.

But she added that the commission does have an important role to play going forward: selecting the next chief.

“I realize this means that the police commission and I now have the difficult task of finding the Police Department’s next leader and role model. I look forward to working with them,” said Thao. “I know that they share my commitment to seeking a diverse pool of applicants, and to finding candidates who are committed to reform and who have demonstrated the ability to improve community police relationships.”

The outside investigators found that multiple other officers besides Armstrong also violated department rules. Today, however, was the deadline for the city to decide whether or not to impose discipline on them.

Asked whether her administration was moving forward with discipline for any other officers besides Armstrong, Thao declined to answer, saying these are personnel matters.

It’s unclear if the police commission is considering these other cases at their closed-session meetings tonight.

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.