The Oakland Police Department's emblem depicting a badge with a six-pointed star, City Hall, and ships at the port.
Credit: Amir Aziz

This time last year, Oakland police leaders were hoping that by today they would be celebrating the successful completion of their federal oversight program, which has gone on for more than 20 years.

But during a hearing in San Francisco on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick said his decision last year to put OPD on track to regain full independence was “premature” and that the department can expect to remain under his watch for at least five more months.

“We went into this sustainability period without being fully compliant,” Orrick said, referring to the fact that OPD had yet to complete two of the 52 tasks in its reform roadmap, a document called the Negotiated Settlement Agreement. “We did it because everybody was so anxious to transfer this case into the hands of the city.”

OPD was put under the supervision of a federal judge and court-appointed monitor in 2003 as a result of the Riders case, in which a group of officers was exposed for beating and framing mostly Black West Oakland residents. The scandal exposed numerous problems within OPD that allowed officers to systematically violate people’s civil rights.

On Tuesday, Orrick wondered aloud what it will take for OPD to once and for all demonstrate that it can hold officers accountable when they break the law or violate department rules. Despite making progress in some areas, he noted, after 20 years of court oversight, OPD has yet to solve the problem of corruption within its highest ranks and in its internal affairs investigations.

“I’ve seen impressive accomplishments,” Orrick said about the department’s ability to address some of the problems that have plagued it, including dramatically reducing racial disparities in stops and searches, and using technology like its “VISION” early warning system to flag troubling behavior by officers so that supervisors can intervene.

“But I’ve also seen what seems to be a cultural inability of OPD to police itself, to hold itself and its officers accountable without fear or favor. And this seems particularly true in cases involving OPD command staff. It’s this lack of integrity and this culture that plays favorites and protects wrongdoers that undercuts the foundations of constitutional policing.”

OPD’s most recent misstep on the road to reform came about when outside investigators concluded that a popular sergeant accused of serious crimes and misconduct escaped discipline after almost everyone in his chain of command—including his lieutenant, the captain of internal affairs, and even the police chief—played favorites. Chief LeRonne Armstong was fired by Mayor Sheng Thao in February for failing to ensure the integrity of the discipline process, and for publicly criticizing the federal oversight of OPD after he was placed on administrative leave in January.

The outside investigators who detailed the corruption of OPD’s discipline process in the case recommended the department make numerous changes to its policies to ensure more checks and balances. Orrick asked interim Chief Darren Allison if he thinks these changes can cut down on corruption within the department.

“I think it will shore up the process,” Allison said. “I don’t think any policy will solve a cultural problem.”

The difficulty of changing police culture became the central topic at Tuesday’s court hearing, with the judge, police officials, city leaders, and others wondering what it will take to solve one of OPD’s most deeply ingrained problems.

John Burris, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys who filed the Riders case lawsuit 23 years ago that led to OPD’s federal oversight, said during the hearing that he recently asked OPD’s court-appointed monitor Robert Warshaw—who has also worked in similar roles overseeing police and sheriff’s departments across the country—if he’d ever worked a case where a police department’s culture fundamentally changed. 

According to Burris, Warshaw told him “no.”

“You can have technical compliance, which we had here,” said Burris. “But has that solved the question of compliance, the question of cultural change? The answer is no.”

Rockne Lucia, an attorney representing the Oakland police officers’ union, said that despite recent problems, he thinks there has been a profound cultural shift in OPD. The department is quite different today from what it was 20 years ago when the Riders officers were fired and charged by the district attorney with crimes like kidnapping and falsifying police reports. Lucia noted that lawsuits against OPD officers for excessive force have plummeted over the past two decades, and said the police culture is less violent.

“We don’t see the types of lawsuits they used to file,” he said about the brutality cases that Burris and his colleague, civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, used to regularly file against OPD officers on behalf of abused Oakland residents. “We hear about [brutality cases in] Louisville and Memphis. And we don’t see that in Oakland.”

Thao, who appeared in court in person, alluded to Armstrong’s firing as an “extremely difficult decision,” but one that delivered on the city’s need to hold all of its police accountable, regardless of rank.

She told the judge she isn’t just trying to fix OPD through new policies, but that her administration is hoping to “truly reimagine” public safety in Oakland. As part of this, she said OPD’s culture can be changed by breaking down walls between the city’s different departments and integrating OPD into the work of other agencies.

“Historically, there’s this tendency to think of police departments as their own organizations with their own cultures,” said Thao. “But in Oakland, we’ve zoomed out to thinking of police as part of a larger structure. The best way to continue changing the culture at OPD is to continue to weave the department into the fabric of Oakland’s culture.”

“This leadership on the issue of culture is everything,” Orrick told Thao, reminding her that she’s the ultimate authority in Oakland, and that the city’s civilian police commission will also be “key” to figuring out long-term solutions.

Orrick concluded the hearing by saying he still expects OPD to reach full compliance with all of the reform tasks and that he’ll issue an order soon describing what he expects the city to accomplish before the next hearing in the case on Sept. 26. “At the end of September we’ll look and see where we are,” he said.

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.