Oakland City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

Consumed by infighting for months, last Friday the Oakland Police Commission welcomed two new members and elected a new chair and vice chair. The dramatic changes may or may not result in a more functional police watchdog, and they follow months of internal chaos, including boycotts, canceled meetings, lawsuits, and more.

Karely Ordaz and Wilson Riles, Jr. have joined the board as new commissioners. The two were appointed by a selection panel, and they’re replacing Tyfahra Milele and David Jordan, whose terms ended last week.

Riles served on the Oakland City Council from 1979 through 1992 and later chaired a task force to create a community policing program for Oakland. During the meeting, he joked that he’s older than the reconstructed dais in City Hall. Riles told The Oaklandside that the commission’s number one priority is finding a police chief.

“We have got to do that, and do that very well,” Riles said. “That’s critical for a lot of people.”

Ordaz, a former alternate on the commission, currently works for the Unity Council, a nonprofit organization in Fruitvale. She said she is excited to work with the community and fellow commissioners to advance the board’s mission. 

“We are turning a new chapter,” Ordaz said. 

Friday’s meeting was so hastily organized that a security guard posted at the door of City Hall was not aware there were any public meetings that evening requiring public access to the building. The commissioners did not say why they canceled the regularly scheduled meeting that was supposed to happen last Thursday, the day of the week the board usually meets. 

The commission also elected Marsha Peterson as chair and Ordaz as vice chair. Peterson pledged to lead the commission with integrity and transparency and emphasized that she will take a collaborative approach to work.

“I will not be a chair who feels that this is some sort of chair-driven body,” Peterson said. “We are all here together to do this work.”

Peterson, Jackson, and Ordaz clashed repeatedly with Milele, who served as chair up until she exited the commission on Oct. 16. The conflict escalated a month ago when the trio announced they were boycotting meetings to prevent Milele from taking any official commission actions. The group had complained about Milele’s leadership style, accusing her of cutting other commissioners out of important business and improperly speaking on behalf of the commission, among other things. They also objected to how she was handling the police chief search. 

In interviews and statements over the past several months, Milele said the three commissioners were obstructing the work of the board and purposefully undermining her leadership. Milele, along with Jordan, also fought to try to keep her seat on the board. She, Jordan, and a former commissioner, Ginale Harris, even filed a lawsuit against the city and the selection panel that picks commissioners, alleging that the process was unfair and that the chair of the selection panel had conflicts of interest. 

Peterson, Jackson, and Ordaz now effectively control the commission, including the police chief search. In one of her first acts as chair, Peterson appointed herself, Jackson, and Ordaz to the subcommittee responsible for finding a new police chief. Under Milele, this committee, which also included Jordan and Rudolph Howell, announced it had selected a list of seven “top” candidates for police chief, including LeRonne Armstrong, who formerly held the post but was fired in February after publicly accusing OPD’s federal monitor of corruption.

Peterson said none of the names on the list were vetted or interviewed, so the commission will have to “backtrack on that process” to give the commissioners an opportunity to review the applicants and potentially trim the list. It’s unclear if this will extend the timeline for hiring a new chief. 

Mayor Sheng Thao, who is relying on the commission for a list of three candidates to choose from, wants to hire someone before the end of the year. 

A small handful of community members welcomed the change of leadership at Friday’s meeting. 

“I like what you said about this not being a chair-driven police commission,” said Cathy Leonard, head of the Coalition for Police Accountability. Leonard and her organization demanded Milele’s removal for allegedly abusing her authority. In response, Milele said the Coalition—a volunteer group of Oakland residents—has exercised too much influence over the commission’s business.

Mariano Contreras, a member of the Oakland Latino Task Force, urged the commission to appoint different members to the search committee, noting that all three are or have been mayoral appointees.

“From the community perspective, the community lens, that doesn’t sit well,” Contreras said. “True or untrue, the perception goes a long way.”

The commission is in a precarious state in terms of its size and staffing. Milele and Jordan are now gone, as is Commissioner Rudolph Howell, who abruptly resigned the weekend before last without explanation. Howell attended meetings during the boycott, and during the Oct. 12 meeting thanked Milele and Jordan for navigating “political shenanigans” to continue doing the commission’s work, and said they would be missed. 

Brenda Harbin-Forte, another commissioner who was an ally of Milele, was removed from the commission in June by Mayor Thao, but Thao hasn’t yet picked a replacement.

This leaves the commission with a minimum quorum of five commissioners, plus one alternate, Angela Jackson-Castain. It’s unclear if Jackson-Castain will be elevated to the seat of a full commissioner, or if a selection panel will appoint one instead.

The commission also lost its full-time chief of staff, Kelly Yun, who ran the board’s meetings, handled agenda preparation and correspondence, and other administrative work. 

The staffing problem has contributed to some of the chaos during the commission’s transition. Friday’s meeting was run by Mac Muir, who leads the Community Police Review Agency. Muir’s actual job is to manage the commission’s team of investigators who look into police misconduct cases, but when he took over this role earlier this year he found CPRA was missing key deadlines and needed to be significantly reorganized to get back on track.

In Yun’s absence, at various points during Friday’s meeting, the commissioners had to have side conversations to figure out how to take certain actions. Going forward, whether the board can get organized quickly, and avoid further infighting, is an open question. 

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jackson was elected as vice chair.

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.