Oakland City Hall. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Despite months of bitter disagreement between Tyfahra Milele and some members of the Oakland Police Commission, which was created to help Oakland’s scandal-plagued police department become more transparent and accountable to residents, it was clear. She wanted to serve for a second term. 

Now, Milele and two allies are suing the interview panel tasked with nominating commissioners, claiming its leader has tried to stop her and another commissioner from being reappointed because they threaten his financial interests.

This bitter power struggle may seem obscure to some Oaklanders, but it has the potential to paralyze a commission that is supposed to play a critical role in reforming the city’s police department. 

It also has the potential to ripple beyond Milele’s fight to get reappointed. In the wake of this drama, two members of Oakland’s City Council have proposed tweaking the laws that govern the Oakland Police Commission and the selection panel, as well as two other civic bodies that work on police reform issues. 

Lawsuit alleges a conspiracy

Tyfahra Milele announced the lawsuit last Wednesday during a meeting to interview candidates for the Oakland Police Commission.

Milele, whose term ends in October, did not receive the votes to be considered for a spot on the commission. The commission’s current vice chair, David Jordan, applied but was not interviewed. He and a former commissioner, Ginale Harris, are co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Chanin and the panel. 

During the meeting, Milele accused the head of the panel, civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, of having a financial conflict of interest. She believes he should be disqualified from evaluating candidates for the commission. 

Her accusation echoes complaints made by OPD officers over the years that the department’s federal court oversight is nothing more than a way for civil rights attorneys and a federal monitor to make money off the city. In her lawsuit, Milele notes that Chanin is one of the attorneys in a 23-year-old landmark class action case that put OPD under federal oversight in 2003. To help settle this case, Oakland agreed to be placed under federal oversight until its police department met a series of reforms. 

The police commission, which was set up in 2017, is supposed to craft policies that will help the city eventually regain control of its police department.

Milele claims Chanin has a financial incentive to maintain federal oversight indefinitely because he’s paid tens of thousands per year by the city for his work on the reform. The lawsuit accuses Chanin of using his power to not reappoint commissioners who have tried to help Oakland exit the settlement agreement.

“I can say that the City Attorney and others at City Hall have looked the other way on this,” Milele told The Oaklandside this week. 

Milele’s lawsuit demands that the selection panel halt all proceedings until Chanin is removed. It specifically demands that Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who appointed Chanin, strip him from the panel. Bas’ office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Chanin is adamant that there is no conflict of interest in him working on OPD’s reform while also participating on the panel. He told The Oaklandside that the City Attorney’s Office reviewed this issue when he was appointed to the selection panel and didn’t identify any problems.

Chanin said that around 2016, he agreed to stop suing Oakland for police misconduct—a practice that once earned him millions of dollars. And Chanin said while he’s paid tens of thousands of dollars each year to help with the settlement agreement, he worked for nearly a decade for minimal pay. From 2003 to 2012, Chanin said he earned a total of $85,000 for nine years worth of work. Chanin also noted that he voted to appoint the commissioners who are part of the lawsuit, which undercuts their claim that he doesn’t want effective commissioners.

Chanin, who is 76 years old, said he wants to move on with his life. He said it’s “ludicrous” to accuse him of hindering OPD’s reforms for a paycheck.

“That’s really hard to swallow,” he said.

The suit also claims Chanin has let the panel be manipulated by the Coalition for Police Accountability, an activist group that helped write the ballot measure that created the Police Commission. 

The Coalition has raised concerns about Milele’s leadership for months, especially her handling of a discipline scandal that resulted in the termination of Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. Two commissioners—Regina Jackson and Marsha Peterson—have also demanded that Milele be removed from the commission, along with her staunchest ally, Brenda Harbin-Forte. 

Harbin-Forte’s term officially ended last year, but Mayor Sheng Thao removed her from the commission only last month. The mayor said she wanted to appoint her own person to the commission. On July 3, Harbin-Forte filed an ethics complaint against Chanin over his alleged conflict of interest. 

Chanin said he couldn’t speculate why the selection panel’s eight other members didn’t vote to approve Milele for a second term, but he suggested it might be because she used her opening statement last week to attack him. Chanin said one reason he didn’t vote for Milele was because of her conduct during commission meetings.

“She interrupts people. She doesn’t let them finish,” Chanin said.

Milele said that Chanin didn’t vote for her during a meeting last month when the panel was winnowing down the field of candidates and where she spoke about her record as a commissioner. She also strongly objected to Chanin’s characterization of her behavior as chair.

“I would love to see any receipts on that,” Milele said. “I would urge and encourage you to look at commission meetings to see my demeanor.”  

In public meetings, Chanin has also criticized Milele and the commission for failing to get involved in the investigations that led up to the firing of Chief Armstrong in February.

Chanin gave a presentation to the Police Commission last October and told them about the investigations. Although he said he wasn’t aware of the details, like who was being investigated, Chanin emphasized that the federal judge and federal monitor overseeing OPD had already agreed that the cases involved very serious police misconduct that could derail OPD’s compliance with the reform program. Chanin urged the commission to use its powers to obtain the investigation records and launch its own investigation so that it would be poised to make decisions about discipline at the appropriate time.

“We need to take a hard look at how these two matters were handled… I would encourage you to get the report of this law firm,” Chanin told the commissioners, referring to the outside law firm that was hired by the city to handle the investigations. “I think you should be involved. That’s why we have a police commission.”

During a selection panel meeting in May, Chanin criticized the police commission because it didn’t subpoena the case files and ended up being surprised in January when Chief Armstrong was placed on leave. The commission attempted to intervene anyway but backed down after Mayor Thao stepped in and fired Armstrong.

“We wanted the commission to make the decision, whether it was ‘Chief Armstrong could stay’ or ‘Chief Armstrong was fired.’ That was their decision,” Chanin said about the commission and Milele during the selection panel meeting. “They screwed it up.”

In her lawsuit, Milele characterized this meeting in May as a “trial” where Chanin and the Coalition made “untrue and misleading” statements about her handling of the Armstrong matter. 

“Chanin and the CPA bashed the commission and its leadership, sometimes ridiculing the sound legal advice that the commission’s counsel had provided, but with which they disagreed,” Milele, Jordan, and Harris allege in her lawsuit.

As for why the panel did not interview David Jordan for another term, Chanin cited his application and past work on the commission.

“He did nothing in his application. That’s why he didn’t get it,” Chanin said. 

Jordan was surprised and disappointed that the panel didn’t consider him for reappointment. In an open letter sent to the panel on July 11, Jordan said he’s worked on numerous policies during his time on the commission, including those addressing militarized equipment, handling missing people, and rules governing OPD’s Internal Affairs Division. He said his application was brief because he assumed the panel was aware of his work on the commission.

“I would guess that my name is on probably more OPD policy work than any other commissioner since the beginning,” Jordan told The Oaklandside.

Jordan said a handful of commissioners have undertaken a campaign to undermine Milele’s leadership for over a year. He worries that the ongoing dispute threatens to harm the broader struggle for police reform. “This stupid slap fight we find ourselves in is actually imperiling the cause of police oversight in general,” he said. He believes many people would love to see the commission fail in its mission to hold Oakland police accountable. “We are not keeping our eyes on the prize.”

A steady disintegration

In letters to city officials and at public meetings, members of the Coalition for Police Accountability have accused Milele of breaches of conduct and contributing to an “atmosphere of friction, disrespect, and hostility.”

Like Chanin, the Coalition’s members say the Police Commission  bungled the events leading up to Armstrong’s termination in February, and that Milele is responsible. 

Coalition members say the Police Commission should have investigated Armstrong and decided whether to fire or retain him. The Police Commission could have subpoenaed OPD for records of the department’s investigation into Armstrong and the underlying cases involving a popular sergeant who was involved in a hit-and-run and gunfire incident inside OPD’s headquarters. 

In February, after it was clear Armstrong was a target of the investigation, Milele tried to form a discipline committee to examine the case against the chief. But the Coalition contends she didn’t have the authority to do this. According to the city charter—Oakland’s constitution—the police commission can’t form a discipline committee without first performing an independent investigation, the thing Chanin urged the commission to do back in October. The charter also states that the Police Commission can form a discipline committee only when its investigators’ findings contradict those of OPD’s internal affairs.

Milele said the commission did have the legal right to set up a discipline committee. According to a section of the City Charter, the commission does have the ability to convene a discipline committee in certain cases when CPRA has not completed an investigation within 250 days.

The Coalition also said Milele wasn’t sufficiently transparent about her interactions with Armstrong during the period when he was investigated over the misconduct cases. 

In January, the Police Commission’s Inspector General, Michelle Phillips, filed a complaint with the Public Ethics Commission against Milele. Phillips is responsible for auditing OPD’s policies and performance and recommending ways the department can improve. Phillips accused Milele of violating the Brown Act, a state law that requires boards to hold meetings in public. Coalition members also accused Milele of micromanaging the Inspector General’s day-to-day work, which is prohibited. Commissioner Regina Jackson sent a letter to the City Council in June accusing Milele of fostering a “toxic work environment” for Phillips.

Milele responded to the Coalition’s allegations with a detailed letter. She said the group’s claims against her are false and misleading. Milele told The Oaklandside that five of the commission’s seven members support her, and so far only Jackson and Peterson have publicly criticized her.

Where does the commission go from here?

 At Thursday’s Rules and Legislation Committee meeting, the City Council decided to convene in September to discuss a proposed ordinance that would tweak the laws regulating the police commission and the selection panel that picks police commissioners. It would also address the Community Police Review Agency and the Inspector General.

The details of this proposal aren’t public yet. But Councilmember Kevin Jenkins’ chief of staff, Patricia Brooks, said the legislation will clarify the powers granted to certain stakeholders. 

“I think that all sides will be happy with it,” Brooks told The Oaklandside. 

A couple of activists at Thursday’s meeting suggested the ordinance needs to be updated. Cathy Leonard, president of the Coalition for Police Accountability, thanked Councilmembers Kalb and Jenkins for working with her group on the legislation.

Ginale Harris, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the selection panel, raised questions about the timing of the proposed amendment. 

“It’s really sad… that an amendment had to happen because things that had been ignored for years since the existence of the police commission are now being addressed,” Harris said.

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.