Oakland City Hall Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland’s Police Commission is one of the most powerful and independent law enforcement oversight bodies in the country, but it’s having trouble recruiting new members.

About the Oakland Police Commission

  • Has the power to recommend OPD policies, oversees civilian-led investigations of police misconduct
  • Seven volunteer members, three appointed by the mayor, four by a selection panel, plus two alternates.
  • Meets at least twice per month
  • The commission’s powers and duties are described in full in Section 604 of the City Charter

A selection panel charged with filling several seats on the seven-person commission has received just one application since it announced the opening of the application process in mid-April. The deadline for applications is coming up on May 31. In past years the commission has struggled to bring in applicants, but never like this.   

“This year is really bad,” said Lorelei Bosserman, a member of the selection panel. “A rush of applications usually comes in at the last minute, but we usually have more than one by now.”

The specter of unfilled vacancies on the commission seems unthinkable to community leaders who recall the surge of public interest in creating the commission.

Oakland residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of creating the police commission in 2016 to provide oversight of OPD and investigate allegations of officer misconduct. Voters later approved additional powers for the commission, including the ability to hire its own attorney. The commission, which meets at least two times per month, has the power to review and propose OPD policy changes, review the police department’s budget, and conduct audits of OPD through its inspector general.  

The commission oversees the Community Police Review Agency, which employs civilians who investigate police misconduct and recommend discipline for officers who violate city rules. CPRA is currently considering candidates for a permanent director, and under Mayor Sheng Thao’s budget proposal, it may take over the duties of OPD’s Internal Affairs Division.  

The commission also holds an unusual degree of power in Oakland politics because it can unilaterally fire police chiefs. In 2020, the commission led the process of terminating Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick without cause of action—a move Mayor Libby Schaaf joined them in. More recently, the commission attempted to take control of an investigation into Chief LeRonne Armstrong’s alleged failure to discipline an officer for misconduct. Mayor Sheng Thao fired Armstrong days later.   

Stakeholders can only speculate why public interest in serving on the commission is down this year. Rashidah Grinage, a coordinator with the Coalition for Police Accountability, said the people who would make the most sense as commissioners are probably fully booked doing activism in the community.

“Maybe word has gotten out that it’s a lot of work for no money,” Grinage told The Oaklandside. She said that commissioners on average work roughly 20 hours a week, but the addition of an inspector general, auditing staff, and a new head of CPRA could make life a little easier for commissioners going forward.

The number of applications has fluctuated over the years. The commission received its most applicants—146—in 2017. In 2019, it received 16; in 2020, it got 68, according to Bosserman. She added that four commissioners and one alternate have terms that expired or are expiring at the end of 2023, which means the selection committee needs more applications to fill those vacancies.

Bosserman said the mayor—who is allowed to appoint three commissioners and one alternate—could reappoint two commissioners. The commission could also fill a vacancy with one of the alternates, but that would require finding someone to replace the alternate. The city also has a reserve of previous candidates who applied but didn’t get commission slots. In a worst-case scenario, the city can also extend the deadline for applications, which has been the practice in previous years.

Bosserman said the city has relied on fliers and press releases to announce vacancies on the commission, but she believes more aggressive outreach could help bring in additional applications. Bosserman puts together a list of emails for organizations that might have interested candidates that she gives to the city. But she noted that the application process also hinges on people’s willingness to engage with a tough volunteer job.

“It’s a huge commitment, so people need time to decide whether or not they want to make it,” she said.

Individuals can apply to be on the commission at www.oaklandca.gov/policecommission or by calling 510-368-5598. Applicants must be Oakland residents and at least 18 years old. Current and former police officers, police union officials, and city employees are not eligible to join.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.