Oakland considers giving police control to independent commission

Oakland Police Patch

Stung by disciplinary problems that have beset Oakland’s Police Department, the City Council is considering a call for an independent police commission that would have broad powers to oversee the rank and file — and even fire the chief.

The proposal by Councilmen Dan Kalb and Noel Gallo is up for a vote at Tuesday night’s council meeting. If approved, it will go before voters in November.

“I strongly believe that this is what’s needed in Oakland — a body that the citizens feel they can go to,” Gallo said. He and Kalb say the commission would add a layer of moral authority to a department reeling from corruption scandals and the abrupt departure of three chiefs in nine days.

“To have true civilian oversight and some serious improvements to our discipline process — all that in combination would reduce incidents of inappropriate behavior,” Kalb said.

But the idea has prompted fierce opposition from the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, whose president says it would violate a union contract that the council unanimously approved in November. It has also drawn criticism from the community activists it was meant to placate, many of whom believe the commission’s powers wouldn’t go far enough.

Replacing review board

“Politically, there are a lot of misunderstandings in Oakland,” said Joe Tuman, a former mayoral candidate and member of the public safety advocacy group Make Oakland Better Now. “You have police officers who feel underappreciated, and then you have a lot of people in Oakland who see police officers as aggressors, and even groups who want to see a reduction in the force. And then now there’s this call to weed out all the cops who have done bad things.”

The commission that Kalb and Gallo envision would replace the Citizens’ Police Review Board, a civilian-run body created in 1980 to investigate complaints and make disciplinary recommendations to the city administrator. The board is perennially understaffed, and its recommendations are routinely ignored, Tuman said.

The new seven-member police commission would be much more powerful. It would be authorized to review all Police Department policies and propose changes to the City Council. It would review the mayor’s biennial public safety budget and recommend changes. It would form a Community Police Review Agency to investigate complaints of misconduct and recommend disciplinary measures to the police chief.

And it would be empowered to fire the police chief for cause, if five members vote to do so. Only the city administrator and federal court-appointed compliance director, Robert Warshaw, can now fire a chief.

Oakland’s commission would be similar in many ways to San Francisco’s Police Commission, which also has the authority to conduct investigations and remove the chief. It exercised that right in 1992, ousting then-Chief Richard Hongisto over allegations that his officers had grabbed more than 2,000 copies of the weekly Bay Times newspaper out of its racks after the publication ran a satirical illustration of Hongisto.

Former San Francisco Police Commissioner Peter Keane praised Oakland’s commission proposal as “long overdue” and said it would be an easy sell to voters.

“Oakland’s Police Department has always shown itself to have all these problems,” Keane said. “I think the public would look at this and say, ‘Good. Amen.’”

Schaaf backs proposal

Mayor Libby Schaaf, who would appoint three of the commission’s seven members, supports the plan and allocated $1 million in her June mid-cycle budget to get the commission up and running.

“Now is a time, not just in Oakland but throughout the country, that people are looking to move public trust in law enforcement to a more positive place,” Schaaf said. “I think having a police commission in Oakland will help accomplish that.”

Still, it may be challenging to impose wholesale reform on a department that has long lacked stability, cycling through chief after chief and struggling to retain officers who leave at the rate of about six a month.

The police union’s opposition to the plan stems mainly from changes it would make in the way officers who are disciplined or fired appeal their punishment.

Under the current contract, an officer can appeal to an arbitrator approved by both the Police Officers’ Association and the city. Of 15 police arbitration cases since December 2014, six have led to reduced penalties, including two officers whose firings were overturned.

“I’m disappointed, yeah, because I want them to stay fired,” acting Assistant Chief David Downing said recently. “Unfortunately, I have to take them back.”

Kalb and Gallo initially set out to eliminate the right to arbitration altogether, but they backtracked under pressure from several unions, including the Alameda Labor Council. The current proposal would allow the commission to pick 20 arbitrators from the California State Mediation and Conciliation Service, and give the Police Officers’ Association and city attorney’s office the power to veto six each.

Such concessions failed to mollify Barry Donelan, the police union’s president.

“Our labor contract is set in stone,” he said. “You can’t change what we’ve negotiated.”

Asked about other aspects of the proposal, Donelan said, “If those who are elected in this town decide to abdicate their responsibility for the Police Department and public safety to a commission, that’s their decision.”

On the other side of the debate are Oakland’s police accountability activists, who have been calling for a citizen-led commission for years. Some of them are now criticizing Kalb and Gallo for allowing the mayor to appoint three of the seven commissioners. The rest would be named by a selection panel appointed by the mayor and City Council.

Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability said it’s imperative that no commissioner owe his or her position to an elected official. She favors having the selection panel pick all seven members.

“We believe that is an important element in establishing an independent agency that is responsible and accountable to residents of Oakland,” Grinage said. She said she “cannot yet comment” on whether her group supports the proposal.

Satisfying disparate groups

For some city officials, one selling point for the commission is the possibility it would help Oakland get out from under federal court oversight of the Police Department. A recent Chronicle investigation found that the city has spent more than $13 million since 2003 trying to satisfy requirements that a judge put in place in reaction to a misconduct scandal among officers in West Oakland.

“I think the council members are showing courage trying to push something through,” Tuman said. “But getting something that has teeth and also placates all the different groups — that will be a tall order.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rswan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rachelswan

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