An angry group of Oakland residents demanded the reinstatement of former Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong during a town hall that took place Thursday night in City Hall in lieu of a regular Police Commission meeting.
Sixteen people spoke during the brief but heated forum, most of whom praised Armstrong as a homegrown cop who they trust to reduce crime in the city. Several lambasted Mayor Sheng Thao, who fired Armstrong in February.
“This is a modern-day lynching,” said said one speaker about Armstrong’s ouster in February. “He should never have been fired.”
A few showed up to support Thao’s decision to fire Armstrong following revelations in January about grossly mishandled police misconduct cases.
“What matters is that Sheng Thao was elected by a majority of Oaklanders, and she made a decision,” said Jenny Zilliac. “The purpose of this board is not to undermine her leadership.”
Thursday’s meeting was organized by Police Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele, who announced on September 18 that the board would consider Armstrong as a potential “shortlist nominee” to be sent to the mayor. Milele said she based her decision on an opinion from a neutral hearing officer who issued a report earlier this month stating that Armstrong hadn’t been derelict in his duty to hold subordinate officers accountable.
Many of the speakers at Thursday’s meeting felt the same way, including former commissioner Brenda Harbin-Forte, who said Armstrong was “one of the best chiefs I’ve seen in Oakland.”
The hearing officer who issued the report offered no opinion on whether Armstrong should be re-hired. Armstrong has said he’s open to the idea, but Mayor Sheng Thao says she will not rehire him. Thao said previously that Armstrong’s decision to go to the press to criticize her and accuse OPD’s federal monitor of corruption while he was on administrative leave in January is what led her to get rid of him—not the allegations that he allowed an officer to escape punishment for a hit-and-run.
The Police Commission has no power to reinstate Armstrong, but it can recommend him as one of the candidates it is tasked with sending to the mayor. Under the city charter, the mayor gets to pick the chief from this list.
Two commissioners and one alternate—Marsha Peterson, Regina Jackson, and Karely Ordaz—are boycotting Police Commission meetings until the commission’s leadership, Milele and Vice Chair David Jordan, term out next month. The three have raised concerns about the chief selection process, especially the statements by Milele saying that the commission would consider Armstrong a “shortlist” candidate. Earlier this week, Jackson, Peterson, and Ordaz said they aren’t necessarily opposed to the idea of Armstrong coming back as chief, but that they are worried the recruitment process is being unfairly sped up to favor Armstrong.
Jackson, Peterson, and Ordaz also said they don’t feel safe at meetings because of tense interactions they’ve had with Jordan. Milele and Jordan say the commissioners are being irresponsible and spreading falsehoods.
Only three out of the commission’s six current members and two alternates were present Thursday, which prevented the board from having the quorum necessary to hold an official meeting and take votes on any items it is currently considering.
Even so, some residents showed up to sound off about their frustration that Armstrong was sacked.
Oakland City Councilmember Noel Gallo praised Armstrong for walking the streets of Fruitvale with him, and for knowing “how to communicate with us in Oakland because he grew up here.”
Brenda Grisham, an East Oakland resident who is one of the main organizers of the recall campaign targeting District Attorney Pamela Price, also supports Armstrong.
“Our main thing is we want the best person, the person that’s fit for the job. If you look at the job description, that’s LeRonne Armstrong all day long,” she said.
Others were less eager to side with Armstrong.
Desmond Jeffries, who works for the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, said Armstrong is “a nice guy” and approachable. But he also said that when Oakland had a rash of car break-ins during the pandemic, Armstrong blamed City Council for cutting funding for a police academy, which Jeffries said wasn’t true. Jeffries also said he still has some questions about the underlying disciplinary case that Armstrong allegedly mishandled.
“We are here going through several police chiefs because they’ve not been charging officers for misconduct,” Jeffries said. “If we continue that process, we’re going to keep having the same problem.”
Milele said the commission couldn’t speak to questions and comments raised during the meeting because it was a personnel and legal matter. She noted that the commission has already received input from 350 Oaklanders at five public forums. Milele thanked the people who spoke but also reminded them that the commission’s powers are limited.
“I just want to clarify, we can’t reinstate him,” Milele said about Armstrong.
The commission’s beleaguered leaders only have a few weeks left in their term, and they likely won’t have a quorum at their next regular meeting on October 12 to conduct any commission business, including a possible vote on adding Armstrong’s name to the list of police chief candidates the commission might forward to Mayor Thao for her to choose from. However, Milele said she has invited Thao to attend a closed session meeting that day.
“I just want to thank the community, the public, for coming out tonight,” Milele said. “We hear you and we’ll share your message with the mayor.”