A man in a gray suit with shoulder-length hair speaks and gesticulates at a lectern. Behind him is a flag.
Mac Muir, executive director of the Community Police Review Agency, addresses the Oakland Police Commission on July 27, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe.

A bitter leadership battle that’s played out over recent weeks among members of the Oakland Police Commission has destabilized the city’s police watchdog agency, creating uncertainty about its future.

Now the commission has a new, massive problem to add to its list of troubles.

At the commission’s meeting Thursday, Mac Muir, the executive director of the Community Police Review Agency, an office that investigates police misconduct under the supervision of the commission, shared news that his team has been failing to meet key deadlines required to complete cases, in turn hindering the commission’s ability to discipline officers.

Muir told the commission his investigators are swamped with work, and that because of missteps that occurred before he took over, and a series of resignations by investigators over the past nine months that cut the workforce from nine to just three investigators, the agency will need to “triage” numerous cases with fast-approaching deadlines. 

“We’ve had several cases that have passed the 3304 deadline, which means there can be no discipline administered,” Muir said, referring to the state statute governing police misconduct cases. 

However, Muir emphasized that with new hires, training, and better data management, the agency can get a handle on cases. He also commended the commissioners for requesting that he share this information with the public. Muir noted that this data was previously not shared with the commissioners in a way that would have been meaningful or given them a reason to take corrective action. 

Muir joined Oakland to run the Community Police Review Agency on June 19 following a national search for a new leader. As he noted in the meeting, he’s only worked 23 business days so far. 

CPRA is staffed by civilians who investigate allegations of police misconduct independently of the police department. The agency reports to the Police Commission. Currently, OPD also investigates the same cases of police misconduct as CPRA through its Internal Affairs Division. When the police department and Police Commission’s investigators disagree about a case, the commission has the power to make a final decision. But the commission can’t exercise this level of civilian oversight when CPRA isn’t completing cases.

The likelihood that CPRA will miss deadlines on dozens or more cases in the coming months comes at the same time the commission is embroiled in infighting. An influential activist group and two current police commissioners have demanded the commission’s current chair, Tyfahra Milele, step down. The Coalition for Police Accountability has accused Milele of mismanaging the commission. Milele says the coalition has distorted the commission’s work and has accused the federal monitor and a prominent civil rights attorney of trying to undermine her.

The new problem complicates Oakland’s plans for transforming its system of police accountability. The most recently approved city budget calls for taking steps toward the elimination of OPD’s Internal Affairs Division and handing the duties of investigating and disciplining officers over entirely to CPRA and the Police Commission.

While CPRA has stumbled in completing cases on time, OPD has demonstrated for years that its internal affairs investigators can hit these crucial deadlines, an accomplishment that’s also key to OPD’s plans to get out from under federal court oversight.

CPRA director Muir outlined the problem of missed deadlines in stark terms

Under a state law known as the Public Safety Officers’ Procedural Bill of Rights, a city has to complete police misconduct investigations within one year of learning about alleged wrongdoing by an officer. If the city doesn’t finish on time, it can’t discipline the officer.

Information contained in the commission’s agenda packet for Thursday’s meeting included two cases where CPRA staff recently missed the deadlines. In one case, five officers were accused of wrongfully using a Level 4 type of force against someone, possibly by pointing firearms or using a control hold like an arm twist. (Case details are confidential.) The incident occurred on June 1, 2022 but CPRA investigators missed the deadline to complete the case by May 31 of this year.

In another case, one officer allegedly used a Level 4 type of force while another used a Level 2, a more serious type that could include a strike to someone’s head, a hold that cuts off blood to a person’s brain, or a dog bite. The incident happened on June 22, 2022 but investigators blew through the June 21, 2023 deadline to wrap up the case.

In 2020, CPRA was finishing its average investigation within about 190 days, giving the agency and Police Commission plenty of time to compare the findings with OPD’s and take further action if necessary. Beginning in 2022, the average amount of time it took to finish a case began to steadily grow. This year, the average number of days it takes to resolve a case has ballooned to 363—perilously close to the one-year limitation set by the state.

“If the average case time rises over 365 days, then every single case is at risk of blowing the statute of limitations,” Muir said. 

Muir said blown deadlines are going to be inescapable for some of the 211 pending cases CPRA is supposed to be looking into. Sixty-four cases haven’t been assigned to an investigator yet, and another135 are still in the intake stage, which means they haven’t received any investigative work. 

The timeline of the problem traces back to when the commission fired CPRA’s last executive director, John Alden. Under Alden’s tenure, the commission hit its deadlines for investigating cases, but it appeared that the commission wasn’t pleased with his work in other respects and they let him go for unstated reasons.

After Alden, CPRA was initially run in an interim capacity by attorney and former San Jose Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser. Charlotte Jones, an investigator with CPRA, took over as interim director in December 2022 until Muir was hired in June.

Muir said there were big drop-offs in key performance indicators over the past few years.

From July 2021 through June 2022, the agency completed 183 cases, according to commission records. But from July 2022 through June 2023, this dropped to 67. The number of “sustained” cases also fell over the same two periods of time from 24 to 10. This means that CPRA probably failed to investigate as many as 14 incidents where an officer engaged in some kind of misconduct.

According to Muir, CPRA has been receiving roughly three new cases for every one it closes out, an unsustainable situation.

Muir suggested several actions that could improve the commission’s performance. He said it’s crucial for the Police Commission to allow his team to build a database that can track CPRA’s caseload and easily analyze statistics like the average time it takes to complete a case. Muir said that when he took the job as director, staff initially couldn’t tell him how many cases CPRA receives every week or month, or even the total number of cases the agency had in its custody. 

Hiring new investigators and staffing back to previous levels, Muir said, will also help. The office is about to hire four new investigators, and he has plans to bring in more support staff.  CPRA did not spend over half of its budget last year, he told the commission, leaving them approximately $1.7 million in additional funds to use this year. Muir said he also needs to hire an intern, partly to deal with an absurd challenge caused by the ransomware attack earlier this year: information from many cases is now buried in a 3,000-page PDF that needs to be manually entered into CPRA’s database. 

Muir expressed confidence that his office will be able to sort through pending cases to ensure they are actively investigating the ones with credible allegations of police misconduct. 

“We can find those cases,” Muir said. He added that this is an opportunity–albeit, a painful one–for CPRA to rebuild itself into a national model for police oversight. 

Still, he reiterated that CPRA will probably not be able to avoid missing deadlines on more cases that are coming due over the next six months or so. He also noted that under the mayor’s new budget, CPRA will be absorbing the caseload of OPD’s internal affairs division next year, which number in the hundreds annually.  

“I hope I can continue to provide a path forward, but this is accountability, it’s talking about the problems,” Muir said. “The present is certainly dim, but our future is going to be a lot brighter than our past.” 

The commission and other city officials expressed support for the new CPRA director’s plan

The commissioners didn’t ask many questions during or after Muir’s presentation, with a couple claiming this was the first time anyone from CPRA has walked them through the agency’s internal problems. Commissioner Marsha Peterson asked Muir to clarify how many cases are going to blow past the 3304 deadline. Muir didn’t offer a specific number, referring to the pending case list. But he said if nothing changed in the current process, CPRA would potentially have hundreds of cases at risk in December or January. 

Karely Ordaz, an alternate commissioner who was recently recommended to become a full-fledged member, asked Muir about how he’s addressing morale in the office to improve retention. She suggested he get creative with ways to support his team, like getting the mayor to issue to a commendation for the staff, or even just taking them out to lunch. 

“I know it’s cutting into the timelines, but if it’s taking off half a day where you can all have lunch, walk around the lake, I don’t know, a way just to show them that we care,” Ordaz said. 

Commissioner Jesse Hsieh quizzed Muir about his training plan for new investigators. Muir said he wants new hires to be trained to do trauma-informed interviews so they know how to interact with individuals who have experienced police violence and misconduct. Muir acknowledged the loss of seasoned employees with institutional knowledge was a blow to the office. Muir said he’s still exploring options as he figures out what existing staff need to be trained on. 

“I’ll probably have a different answer in two weeks,” Muir said. 

“I’ll probably ask you again in two weeks,” Hsieh replied. 

Chair Tyfahra Milele, who recently lost her bid to stay on the commission for another term, thanked Muir for sharing the “concerning report.” 

“If there’s any challenges or requirements that CPRA faces, such as the need for additional resources, please don’t hesitate to bring it to our attention,” she said. 

Mayor Sheng Thao has also been briefed on the problem. She said in a statement to The Oaklandside that she is committed to investing in civilian police oversight. 

“While this is the goal, it was clear at the start of my administration that we had inherited an agency that had faced severe underinvestments in staff capacity, technology, professional development and executive leadership, preventing CPRA from fully carrying out its mission,” Thao said. “This report is the first step in identifying these long-standing issues, establishing a plan to address them, and creating a foundation for accountability and effective oversight moving forward.”

Several members of the public at Thursday’s meeting directed their fury at the commission for failing to notice problems at CPRA, an agency they receive regular updates from. 

“I’m just shocked this is the first time we’re hearing of this,” said Cathy Leonard, head of the Coalition for Police Accountability. “Why the police commission did not know about this serious backlog and report it out to the public and try to do something about it is appalling.” 

Former commissioner Brenda Harbin-Forte also berated the coalition in her response. 

“It’s time for the CPA to stop blaming the Oakland Police Commission for not knowing things they could not know,” Harbin-Forte said. “They’ve been monitoring these meetings all these years–why didn’t they know what’s going on?”

Muir stressed that much of CPRA’s data is challenging to understand for people who don’t work in police oversight investigations. He also noted that until recently, CPRA wasn’t sharing data in a way that illustrated the systemic problems for the commissioners so they could act. 

“I don’t think you can say this is necessarily their problem,” Muir said, adding that he appreciates the commission for encouraging him to bring this information forward to the public. “Transparency hurts, that’s why most cities don’t do it, and I’m grateful to have this body as my boss.” 

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