Seven years ago, the Oakland Police Commission was created to make the city’s long-troubled police department more transparent, hold it accountable, and, ideally, build Oakland residents’ trust in Oakland police. 

But the commission itself is mired in a power struggle right now. Some of its members and the community group that helped create it have accused its current leader of abusing her power.

At the center of the controversy is Tyfahra Milele, who was appointed to the seven-person board in 2021 and has served as its chair—an unpaid volunteer role—for about 18 months. Milele’s term ends in October, and she is seeking reappointment. 

The Coalition for Police Accountability is an influential activist group in Oakland that helped write the ballot measure that created the Police Commission in 2016. It operates as a sort of watchdog for the watchdog. Its members say the commission has become dysfunctional under Milele’s leadership. They’ve raised serious questions about how she directed the Police Commission when controversy began swirling around Oakland Police Chief Leronne Armstrong, who has since been fired. Over the past few months, they’ve repeatedly asked her to step down as chair.

The group sent letters to members of Oakland’s City Council cataloging what they view as Milele’s abuses of authority. They asked council members to intervene, possibly by removing her from the commission if she refuses to step down.

Around ten members of the activist group rallied outside City Hall on Tuesday, and they were joined by two members of the Police Commission. During the rally, Marsha Peterson, a commissioner who has been on the board for a little over two years, accused Milele of being “incapable of having conversations with the media, with council members, with community stakeholders….that don’t result in threats, complaints, and chaos.” 

This conflict has largely overlapped with new turmoil in the police department, including the firing of Chief Armstrong and setbacks in OPD’s attempt to complete a federally monitored reform program that has dragged on for over 20 years. 

According to Milele, beneath the surface, the recent attacks on her leadership of the Police Commission are driven by a conspiracy to prolong that reform program indefinitely—and keep Oakland taxpayers on the hook for it. 

A smiling woman wearing a shirt with colorful flower and plant patterns. She is wearing glasses and stands before a grayish background.
Dr. Tyfahra Milele, Chair of the Oakland Police Commission. Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

In an email to The Oaklandside, Milele said that the activists calling for her to step down are pursuing a “takeover of a public agency” in order to help Robert Warshaw, the federal monitor who oversees OPD’s reforms, and Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney who is part of the federal reform program, “stay in business.” 

Warshaw and his team are paid about $700,000 per year by the city to hold OPD accountable and ensure it completes the multitude of reforms it agreed to under the supervision of a federal judge over 20 years ago. 

“The Warshaw/Chanin business partnership is using this tiny group of ambitious, secretive, unaccountable people to continue receiving millions of taxpayer dollars,” Milele told The Oaklandside.

Milele is currently running to be reappointed as chair of the Police Commission. She and her critics seem to agree on one thing: something’s gotta give. A dysfunctional and divided Police Commission will impede Oakland’s ability to continue reforming its public safety systems, craft better policies for OPD, and ultimately prove that it can oversee its own police force. A commission that’s roiled by in-fighting will likely lead to a prolongation of federal oversight. And the ongoing conflict is distracting from the crucial work the Police Commission was created to do in the first place. 

Oakland’s Police Commission isn’t doing its job, Milele’s critics say

Milele, who was raised in South Central Los Angeles and moved to Oakland in 2004, advises an Oakland nonprofit that provides overnight summer camping for teens from low-income backgrounds. Before joining the Police Commission, she worked in several education-oriented organizations, including as a lecturer at UC Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Berkeley. From 2013 to 2017, she served on the Oakland Rent Board as a tenant representative. 

When she applied to become a police commissioner three years ago, she wrote in her application that “compassion, critical reflection, and an orientation towards results” made her an excellent candidate for the position.

Controversy started swirling soon after Milele became the Police Commission’s head in early 2021. According to activists with the Coalition for Police Accountability, Milele has ignored and violated the rules under which the commission is supposed to operate. As a result, they say, she has alienated other commissioners and community members who have been deeply involved in the commission’s work since its inception.

The group spelled out its case against Milele in letters sent to city officials and in public meetings over the past month, accusing the chair of “serious breaches of conduct” and creating an “atmosphere of friction, disrespect, and hostility.”

One of their biggest complaints has to do with how Milele handled the events leading up to former Police Chief LeRonne Armstron’s firing by Mayor Sheng Thao. 

In February, Armstrong was fired after the public learned how he handled two misconduct cases involving a popular police sergeant. The sergeant was accused of committing a hit-and-run and later firing his gun in an OPD elevator and hiding the evidence. Armstrong was faulted for “gross dereliction of duty” and “performance of duty” because he failed to ensure OPD’s discipline process was fair and thorough. He was placed on leave by Thao while she and others reviewed the case and considered next steps.

Under Milele’s leadership, the Police Commission, which has the power to fire the chief, could have gotten involved at this point or even earlier. For instance, commissioners could have asked investigators who work for the Community Police Review Agency, or CPRA, to open up an investigation into Armstrong’s handling of these misconduct charges and decide whether or not he should be allowed to keep his job. The commission could have also used its subpoena power to order OPD to hand over records of its investigation into Armstrong and the earlier cases involving the sergeant.

“We asked them to subpoena these records back in October and wrote them a letter in December castigating them” for not doing so, said Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability who was involved in creating the Police Commission. 

Later, Milele attempted to form a “discipline committee” of three police commissioners to examine the case against Armstrong. But the Coalition for Police Accountability points out that the rules on how Oakland city government should function—known as the city charter—didn’t give Milele and the commission the power to do that. The charter says the police commission can’t form a discipline committee to decide on whether an officer should be punished without first performing its own independent investigation—something Milele failed to initiate.   

Furthermore, the city charter says the Police Commission can form a discipline committee only when its investigators’ findings contradict the findings of OPD’s internal affairs investigators. Since the Police Commission never launched an investigation, there were no findings to compare.

In February, Mayor Thao reached her own conclusions. She fired Armstrong after he attended public protests organized to show him support, made public statements demanding his reinstatement, and accused OPD’s federal monitor of corruptly setting him up so that external oversight of OPD would continue indefinitely. After Armstrong was fired, Milele and the commission abandoned their attempt to form a discipline committee.

Members of the Coalition for Police Accountability say Milele wasn’t transparent about interactions she had with Armstrong around the time he was being investigated for his handling of the misconduct cases. They shared emails with The Oaklandside revealing that Milele attended a special OPD event for senior command staff, including Armstrong and other high-ranking OPD officers, before Armstrong was publicly implicated in the department’s mishandling of discipline matters. Milele didn’t tell her fellow commissioners she’d attended the event and met with the chief.

According to Coalition members, the discipline cases were mentioned at the retreat, and Milele may have needed to recuse herself from any decisions about Armstrong later discussed by the commission. “The optics are terrible, especially given the timing,” they wrote in a letter to the City Council. 

Milele’s critics also say she has interfered with the work of the Police Commission’s Inspector General Michelle Phillips, whose job is to audit OPD’s policies and performance and recommend ways OPD can improve. The inspector general reports to the commission, but none of the commissioners are supposed to direct her work on a day-to-day basis. In their letter to City Council, members of the Coalition for Police Accountability say Milele attempted to micromanage Phillips’ work by ordering her to attend specific meetings and carry out specific tasks. 

In January, Phillips lodged a complaint with the Public Ethics Commission alleging Milele violated the Brown Act, a state law requiring city boards to hold meetings that are open to the public.

Some members of the Police Commission have also been critical of Milele. Regina Jackson is a current member of the commission who served as chair before Milele stepped into the role. In June, she sent a letter to the City Council accusing Milele of fostering a “toxic work environment” and saying that she bullied and harassed Phillips. According to Jackson, Phillips sought out mediation through the city administrator’s office, but Milele “never responded to multiple requests.”

Public records confirm that Phillips complained to then-City Administrator Ed Reiskin last October about Milele. Phillips wrote in an email to Reiskin that Milele was engaging in a troubling “pattern of behavior.”

“Please allow this email to serve as notice of my concerns of harassment and bullying as I do not want to be the victim of any retaliation,” wrote Phillips.

Jackson initially supported Milele in her bid to become the commission’s chair and voted for her. But earlier this year, when the commission took its annual vote to appoint a chairperson, Jackson nominated Marsha Peterson to replace Milele. Milele was reelected with the support of five of the commission’s seven members. 

In an interview with The Oaklandside, Jackson said Milele has abused her power. She blamed Milele for inflicting unprecedented disorder on the commission. She said that the meltdown is preventing the commissioners from doing important policy work that residents have requested.

“I have never seen this kind of dysfunction on the commission,” Jackson said. “We’re not doing excellent work, policy-making or otherwise, when we are in this kind of disarray.”

Jackson also claims Milele unilaterally submitted a budget request for the commission to the City Council without first getting feedback from the commission’s other seven members.

This conflict has now escalated beyond some members of the Police Commission and the activists who helped create it; one member of Oakland’s City Council is publicly weighing in. During a City Council budget hearing in May, Councilmember Kevin Jenkins asked Milele about complaints he’d gotten about the commission’s leadership.

“The Coalition for Police Accountability wrote a jarring letter calling for the chair to resign. So I want to know if the chair—not today—will have a response to that,” asked Jenkins.

After the meeting, Jenkins’ chief of staff followed up by asking Milele’s chief of staff to set up a meeting between the two officials to discuss the tensions among commissioners and the Coalition for Police Accountability. The tone of the emails, which The Oaklandside has reviewed, quickly escalated after Milele’s team informed Jenkins’ team that Milele wouldn’t be available to meet until July.

“You were given almost three weeks to avail yourself for this meeting,” Jenkins staffer shot back, adding, “Your putting this meeting off until July lets the councilmember know that you (1) do not appreciate the urgency of the matter and (2) you do not have respect for his office to respond in a more than reasonable amount of time to his request to meet.”

Jenkins’ staffer added that the councilmember was ready to call on Milele to resign. To date, a meeting between Milele and Jenkins has not been scheduled.

Milele and her allies say she’s protecting the Police Commission—and being attacked for it

A imposing building wrapped in silver and blue metal paneling with a large emblem of a police badge above the door and the words "Oakland Police" on the badge.
The Oakland Police Department Administrative Building in Downtown Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

Milele has defended her record on several occasions, including most recently at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Police Commission Selection Panel. It’s a little-known but powerful city board that picks nominees for the Police Commission and forwards these to the City Council, which has the final say in who is appointed.

“What deeply concerns me is that many of the allegations being brought against me are outright falsehoods,” Milele told the panel’s members before urging them to advance her to the next round, where eight finalists will be interviewed for a few spots on the commission. 

In her application for reappointment, Milele wrote, “I have demonstrated an ability to get things done while maintaining a calm professionalism despite a highly charged political atmosphere. While I don’t make a lot of unnecessary noise on the commission, I believe there is a place for a style that is laser-focused on results rather than politics.”

Milele and her allies say she is in the crosshairs because she hasn’t allowed the Coalition for Police Accountability to overly influence what happens at the commission. The group’s members, which include Oakland residents who have been pushing for more police accountability in Oakland for decades, attend virtually every Police Commission meeting and weigh in on almost every major decision the board makes.

“The selection panel must decide if you want an independent police commission that will respond to the voices of all citizens, or if you want a police commission that’s responsive only to a particular group,” Brenda Harbin-Forte, a member of the Police Commission and a retired judge, said at Tuesday’s selection panel meeting. Harbin-Forte did not respond to a request for an interview.

Citing time constraints, Milele declined to give The Oaklandside an interview, but she responded to questions via email. She told us she thinks the reason she’s facing criticism is because she’s been so effective. 

“Under my leadership and more importantly with the hard work and dedication of six commissioners, OPD reached the ‘sustainability’ period for the first time in 20 years,” she said, referring to the police department’s completion of most of the reforms required of it as a result of the “Riders” civil rights lawsuit

In 2003, the city agreed to place OPD under the supervision of a federal judge and a federal monitor after a squad of West Oakland cops was exposed for beating up and planting drugs on mostly Black residents. This reform program has remained in place to this day largely because OPD has failed to change, and new police abuses of power—illegal strip searches, fake warrants, brutal crackdowns against protesters, and sex trafficking—have continually erupted.

In her email to The Oaklandside, Milele accused the federal monitor and Jim Chanin, one of the attorneys who filed the Riders lawsuit back in 2000 and who remains active in overseeing OPD, of being in a “business partnership” to make money off Oakland and its police department.

“What this is all really about: the Warshaw/Chanin business partnership is using this tiny group of ambitious, secretive, unaccountable people to continue receiving millions of taxpayer dollars,” she wrote. “[The Coalition for Police Accountability’s] motive is the takeover of a public agency by a small band of unaccountable, self-appointed, privately selected people who are being used by Warshaw/Chanin to stay in business.”

Milele’s criticisms about OPD’s federal oversight echo those of former Chief Armstrong, who, while he was on leave earlier this year, accused Warshaw of using the disciplinary problems within OPD as an excuse to get rid of him and keep the department under his thumb.

Warshaw did not respond to a request for comment. Chanin, who also happens to be the chair of the selection panel that picks nominees for the Police Commission, declined to comment. He supported Milele three years ago when she first applied to join the commission, and on Tuesday, he said he thinks the panel should interview her again as a finalist.

Two weeks ago, KTVU reported a story that was critical of Milele and the Police Commission for the pace of the search for a new Oakland police chief. Among the commission’s powers is the job of selecting candidates for the job of police chief and forwarding these to the mayor, who makes the final decision. 

Milele responded to KTVU’s story with a press release calling it an inaccurate “Internet screed.” She pointed out that the search isn’t taking longer this time than it did in 2020 when the city was looking for a replacement for Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. She characterized her critics as an “unaccountable, small group of politically ambitious zealots” who are trying to undermine the independence of the Police Commission. 

Milele’s allies have also gone on the counterattack.

Last week, Harbin-Forte, a fellow member of the Police Commission, filed an ethics complaint against Councilmember Kevin Jenkins and demanded his resignation from the City Council. In an email to the City Council and members of the media, Harbin-Forte accused Jenkins of “bullying, threatening, and retaliatory behavior” toward Milele and her chief of staff, referencing the councilmember’s demand for a meeting and an email in which his staffer wrote that Jenkins was considering asking for Milele’s resignation.

Harbin-Forte also vaguely implied that Jenkins has some kind of inappropriate personal relationship with the Police Commission’s inspector general, Michelle Phillips. “It seems clear that he is going on a retaliatory attack against Chair Milele based on his personal relationship with [Phillips],” she wrote. She did not provide evidence of a personal relationship between them.

Jenkins told The Oaklandside that the insinuations in Harbin-Forte’s complaint are “baseless.” 

In a statement to The Oaklandside, Phillips said, “While it is unfortunate that erroneous personal attacks have been publicized to the media, my focus remains on serving our community with the utmost integrity.”

In her ethics complaint, Harbin-Forte also sought to discredit Cathy Leonard, a longtime activist with and the current president of the Coalition for Police Accountability, by including records about her disbarment as an attorney over a decade ago.

Harbin-Forte wrote in the complaint, “Why Councilmember Jenkins would choose to cast his lot with an unethical person like Ms. Leonard, and go on the attack against Milele, is a question to which many Oakland citizens, myself included, want an answer.” 

Leonard does not represent herself as an attorney in her work as an activist with the Coalition for Police Accountability.

Leonard and her fellow Coalition activists responded to Harbin-Forte on June 20 with a letter to the City Council. “These vicious and unwarranted assaults are notable for their complete lack of any actual defense of Ms. Milele’s conduct and seek to distract from the issues,” they wrote. “There is no doubt that the Police Commission will be unable to do its job as long as Ms. Milele is chair and Ms. Harbin-Forte is a commissioner. Both must go, immediately…”

Will Milele be reappointed to the Oakland Police Commission?

On Tuesday, the police commission selection panel winnowed down a list of 35 applicants to eight finalists who will be interviewed for spots on the commission. Milele received enough votes to be counted among the finalists. But it’s unclear whether the panel will reappoint her. 

The task of appointing seven members to the police commission is split between the mayor and the selection panel, who appoint three and four members, respectively. There will be several vacancies this year; the terms of three commissioners and one alternate expire at the end of 2023. Commissioner Harbin-Forte—Milele’s staunchest ally—saw her term end last October, but the mayor has not announced yet whether she intends to reappoint or replace her. 

Much is riding on what the selection panel chooses to do next. For Milele and her allies, the Coalition for Police Accountability’s criticisms are an affront to the commission’s autonomy. Getting Milele reappointed wouldn’t just vindicate her record as chair; it would show that the Coalition for Police Accountability, a group that was instrumental in creating the commission, is finally losing sway over the board’s direction.

In her application for reappointment, Milele defended her record, writing that while she has served as chair, the commission has approved 22 new policies for OPD. She has attended over 50 Oakland police internal affairs meetings, including review boards examining police shootings and other use of force incidents, all while serving in a volunteer capacity. 

Some community members fear that Milele’s removal would upset the stability of the commission. Brenda Grisham, a member of the Violence Prevention Coalition, a local community group that works to stop gun violence and advocates for public safety policies, told the selection panel on Tuesday that she wants Milele to stay on the commission. 

“We want her reappointed, and we want her moved on to the next step,” Grisham said. 

Coalition for Police Accountability members say they are deeply concerned that Milele will damage the commission’s ability to serve as a watchdog for OPD if she is reappointed. 

At the rally at City Hall on Tuesday, they urged elected officials to take swift action against Milele and Harbin-Forte to prevent the commission from slipping into decline.

“There’s been such a lack of accountability, a lack of respect, particularly to the community… it’s stunning,” said Jose Dorado, a former member of the Police Commission and a longtime public safety activist in Fruitvale and Maxwell Park. “I’ll keep this brief: Afuera! They need to go.”

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.

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,, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.