Oakland, California – A federal judge sealed Oakland’s fate Wednesday as the first city to lose control over its police department, which has failed to complete court-ordered reforms stemming from the decade-old Riders police brutality scandal.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson signed off on an agreement that places sweeping powers in the hands of a court-appointed compliance director who will be able to spend city money, overrule top commanders and fire Chief Howard Jordan.
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City officials agreed to cede those powers last week as part of an agreement with attorneys who represented 119 plaintiffs in a civil suit against the city in connection with the Riders scandal. Had the city not settled, it risked Henderson ordering a full-fledged takeover of the department.
In his nine-page order issued Wednesday, Henderson warned Oakland officials that further delays in completing reforms could result in “monetary sanctions, expansion of the compliance director’s powers or a full (federal) receivership.”
Henderson canceled a Thursday hearing at which he had been scheduled to consider a federal takeover.
“I think this is the last, best chance for everyone,” said John Burris, one of two attorneys who represented victims in a civil suit against the department.
Mayor Jean Quan said in a statement that city leaders looked forward to collaborating with the court and are “re-energized in our efforts to improve public safety while building
greater trust between the community and the police department.”
Burris said he hoped to reach agreement with the city before Christmas on a shortlist of potential compliance directors and have someone in the job by mid-January. He added that the director should be a former police chief with experience monitoring other departments.
Henderson ordered both sides Wednesday to recommend potential compliance directors by Dec. 21. He also reserved authority to reject proposed applicants and make his own appointment.
The compliance director’s salary will be paid by the city and set by Henderson at a level comparable to Oakland’s police chief and city administrator. Oakland already is spending more than $800,000 a year for a federal monitoring team to track its reform efforts.
Several cities have faced federal monitoring of their police departments, but Oakland, which was supposed to have completed police reforms four years ago, now has become the first to fail in its reform effort and accept substantial federal control.
The four officers who dubbed themselves the Riders were accused by a fellow officer in 2000 of beating up and framing suspects in West Oakland and then writing false police reports to hide their transgressions.
The three officers who stood trial never were convicted and the alleged ringleader fled to Mexico. The city settled a civil case in 2003 for $10.9 million.
The settlement also subjected Oakland police to federal monitoring and required the department to institute 51 reform tasks aimed at making the department more accountable and helping it to better police itself and prevent future scandals.
But the reform drive faltered from the start. Police remain out of compliance on several fronts including Internal Affairs investigations, use-of-force reporting, and tracking officers with a history of high-risk behaviors.
The agreement puts the compliance director in charge of completing those reforms, with a goal of getting them done by the end of next year.
The director will have 30 days to submit an action plan and 60 days to set benchmarks for the department to reduce several issues including the unjustified use of force and racial profiling. Monthly status reports must be issued beginning May 15.
Oakland will continue to have its progress tracked by a federal monitor, also accountable to Henderson.
Henderson wrote that he expected the monitor and the compliance director to work closely with each other. Chief Jordan, who previously had to run major decisions by the monitor, Robert Warshaw, will now have to consult with the compliance director.
The director also will be able to order expenditures of up to $250,000, alter police policies and practices that are merely related to the reform effort, and fire Jordan and demote his deputies if the reforms continue to stall.
Oakland will be able to contest those moves with Henderson, but the judge cautioned officials to limit any appeals to matters of employee discipline or expenditures over $250,000. “At any hearing on a disputed issue,” Henderson wrote, “the city will bear the burden” to show that its refusal to follow the compliance director’s direction will not harm the reform effort.