As federal oversight of police comes to new cities, Oakland serves as cautionary tale

·12 min read

OAKLAND, California – There is not a more striking illustration of the ongoing struggle confronting Oakland's Police Department than the display of portraits that hang just outside the chief's office.

Since 2000, six of those in the framed photographs have led – and left – the agency, while at least five others have filled the gaps as interim or acting leaders of the long-troubled department.

Enter LeRonne Armstrong.

Since assuming command in February, the career Oakland cop has been thrust into a whirlwind. Like so many other major cities in the country, gun violence has exacted a heavy toll here, with homicides up 73% so far this year while firearm related assaults have spiked by 60% compared to the same time in 2020.

The surge in violent crime, however, represents only part of a story that now stands as a timely and cautionary tale of federal intervention in local policing, experts say.

For nearly 20 years, the Oakland Police Department has been overseen by a federal judge as part of a negotiated settlement mandating a series of reforms following a reign of terror involving four officers known as "The Riders.”

More than 100 people reported abuse in the Riders' scandal that ranged from beatings to the planting of evidence, ultimately resulting in a 2003 settlement agreement that paid out more than $10 million to the victims and effectively placed the department under federal oversight.

"The place was out of control," said James Chanin, one of the attorneys who negotiated the original settlement.

Yet the Oakland experience now sits prominently on the radar of law enforcement reformers across the country as the Biden administration vows to increase federal scrutiny of troubled police agencies in the aftermath of the social justice movement sparked by multiple deaths at the hands of police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In the first months of Attorney General Merrick Garland’s tenure, the Justice Department announced wide-ranging federal civil rights investigations into the operations of the Minneapolis and Louisville Police departments, reviving an enforcement strategy that had gone largely dormant during the Trump administration.

The inquiries, designed to root out patterns of misconduct, have long stood as the federal government’s most powerful tool in the effort to restore accountability and trust to local agencies.

But as Oakland continues to prove, the strategy is no silver bullet. The Oakland agreement, the product of a private lawsuit, notably did not result from a Justice Department civil rights inquiry. However, it landed where many of highest profile Justice investigations end up: in reform agreements overseen by federal judges and appointed monitors – a form of limbo where Oakland remains, still.

"There is something wrong in Oakland," said University of Nebraska criminology professor Samuel Walker, who has written extensively on police accountability. "There is nothing to compare with Oakland. It cries out for an independent review."

For Armstrong, the stakes for satisfying the demands of the federal settlement agreement could not be higher. The chief's office has been a veritable revolving door since the agreement was struck, and the trust of the community remains elusive.

"As long as (federal oversight) exists, the community doesn’t feel like the department is legitimate," Armstrong told USA TODAY. "It is still not a department that they can have trust and confidence in."

The Riders

In the face of wrenching allegations of police abuse, the city of Oakland was more than ready to move on from one of the most startling scandals in American law enforcement.

A trail of broken trust left by a handful of rogue officers known as "The Riders," had exposed allegations of false arrests, excessive force, falsified police reports and fabricated evidence.

At least 119 people had joined a federal lawsuit, alleging a string of civil rights violations, resulting in a settlement that promised a transformation of police department operations. No function of the department would be spared scrutiny: from the recruitment and training of officers to their management and systems for reviewing allegations of misconduct.

Oakland police officer Matthew Hornung, left, and his attorney Ed Fishman exit a courtroom Dec. 6, 2000, at Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, Calif. Hornung and other officers were charged in "The Riders" scandal.
Oakland police officer Matthew Hornung, left, and his attorney Ed Fishman exit a courtroom Dec. 6, 2000, at Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, Calif. Hornung and other officers were charged in "The Riders" scandal.

All of it, according to the agreement, would be overseen by a federal judge and managed by a designated monitor.

"Today, Oakland is turning the page on a bleak chapter in our city history," City Attorney John Russo said in announcing the landmark 2003 agreement, where he was joined by then-Mayor Jerry Brown. "We did not, so to speak, bury our heads in the sand. Nor did we wait for the Department of Justice to force us into a consent decree."

Eighteen years later, the department has yet to emerge from the long shadow of scandal and slip the reins of federal oversight.

In that time, 73 evaluations have been filed by federal monitors, each determining that the department has fallen short of full compliance on a range of issues, from officer oversight to the use of force and the handling of complaints involving use of force incidents.

Last month, Robert Warshaw, a former Rochester, N.Y., police chief who has been managing local police reforms as monitor for the past decade, dinged the department for failing to meet standards for the timely completion of internal investigations involving the most serious allegations of police misconduct.

In a review of 54 such cases from earlier this year, the monitor found that only 29, or 54%, were in compliance with established timelines, slipping from 67% during a prior evaluation.

'Who is monitoring the monitor?'

As persistent as Oakland's troubles appear, former city police officials, community activists and law enforcement analysts say the multiple layers of oversight have blurred the lines of authority. In addition to the federal oversight, managed by a judge and Warshaw, the monitor, a city Police Commission, created in 2016, also evaluates department policy, often requiring the police chief to serve multiple interests.

More recent attention has been focused on the long tenure of Warshaw.

In a blistering rebuke, former Oakland Chief Anne Kirkpatrick has called for Warshaw's removal, asserting that an annual compensation package of up to $1 million provides no incentive for guiding the department to full compliance with the federal court.

"Where is the incentive to get this department into compliance?" she asked.

Warshaw did not respond to an interview request.

"Who is monitoring the monitor?" said Kirkpatrick, who was hired in 2017 as the first woman to lead the department only to be fired three years later. At the time, city officials said the department had not moved quickly enough to meet the demands of the settlement agreement. She has sued the city for wrongful termination.

In her lawsuit, Kirkpatrick has accused members of the Police Commission of abusing their power by "seeking special treatment from the OPD (Oakland Police Department) in their personal affairs."

"I'm a true believer in reform, but what has happened in Oakland does not appear legitimate," Kirkpatrick said. "What has happened there appears to adulterate the federal reform process."

But Walker, the University of Nebraska professor, described the monitor as "an honorable person" and rejected the suggestion that "he is just in this for the money."

The professor said repeated episodes of officer misconduct, including a 2016 scandal in which a young woman claimed to have sex with more than dozen officers in exchange for information about local prostitution enforcement operations, has warranted extended scrutiny of the department's culture.

Still, Walker said the department's long-term inability to adopt needed reforms is "devastating."

"Failure after 18 years is just unacceptable," Walker said. "Why is that so? Who is responsible for this? Those are questions that need to be answered."

Distrust, fear and frustration

In the shadow of the Oakland Coliseum, on the city's troubled east side, Bishop Bob Jackson, pastor of the Acts Full Gospel Church, was among those who supported forcing the Police Department to confront its demons.

"It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time," Jackson said. "The lies, the falsification of evidence – the culture needed to be changed."

Bishop Bob Jackson, pastor of the Acts Full Gospel Church, is a vocal critic of the Oakland police department.
Bishop Bob Jackson, pastor of the Acts Full Gospel Church, is a vocal critic of the Oakland police department.

Nearly two decades later, the bishop chafes at the constant churn in department leadership, millions of dollars spent to support the demands of federal oversight and a continuing erosion of community trust in the department and its central mission to keep its people safe.

"You have to kind of wonder who is running the show," Jackson said. "It feels like we are worse now than we were 10 years ago. The community feels like we are not being protected."

A striking illustration of that anxiety is the armed security officer posted at the entry to the mega church housed in an old cotton warehouse.

A recent surge in violent crime in the city, Jackson believes, has prompted an exodus from his own congregation, which numbered about 4,000 members before the coronavirus pandemic. He said hundreds have fled to communities outside of Oakland because their public safety concerns.

"Something is wrong with that," Jackson said.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JULY 25:  Protesters hold signs in support of defunding the police on July 25, 2020 in Oakland, California. Demonstrators in Oakland gathered to protest in solidarity with Portland protests. (Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JULY 25: Protesters hold signs in support of defunding the police on July 25, 2020 in Oakland, California. Demonstrators in Oakland gathered to protest in solidarity with Portland protests. (Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)

Grasping for some optimism, Jackson seized on the February appointment of Chief Armstrong, a career Oakland cop born and raised in the city, who the bishop cast as "an honest broker."

"Armstrong is probably the best thing that could have happened here," Jackson said. "The community must get behind this chief. The city has to let him do his job."

Renewed scrutiny of local police – including Minneapolis, Louisville

As Oakland's police force fights for legitimacy, the Biden Justice Department is following through on its promise to apply more federal scrutiny of police operations.

The campaign represents a sharp pivot from the Trump administration, when such federal civil rights inquiries had largely ground to a halt.

More: AG Garland reverses Trump-era policy limiting consent decrees in police investigations

More: Police oversight languished under Trump. Biden's DOJ is bringing federal inquiries back

"I know that justice is sometimes slow, sometimes elusive, and sometimes never comes," Attorney General Garland said in April while announcing a sweeping inquiry into the practices of Minneapolis Police Department – the day after former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in Floyd's murder. "Building trust between the community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait."

Days later, the attorney general was outlining a similar investigation in Louisville, the scene of another flashpoint in the social justice movement following Taylor's death.

Taylor, an emergency room technician, was killed during a botched 2020 raid by Louisville police officers, who were serving a no-knock search warrant as part of a narcotics investigation.

The Justice action, officials said, signals a likely return to the aggressive pursuit of troubled agencies taken by the Obama administration when it opened 25 investigations of systemic abuse at police departments. The Trump administration opened only one.

The revived strategy, while regarded with some wariness by police unions, has been largely welcomed by law enforcement analysts who also acknowledge that there should be limits on federal intervention.

William Bratton, who led the police departments in New York and Los Angeles Police, regards the prolonged federal oversight in Oakland as an "outlier" in police accountability. But he also suggested the Oakland experience offers a timely caution for departments in need of help.

"I think you have to be careful to make sure these (federal inquiries) don't become too big, too costly," said Bratton, who helped bring the Los Angeles Police Department through 12 years of federal oversight. "You don't want it to become an industry."

"What many of these agreements don't do is provide a measure for success in the relationship between the police department and community," Bratton said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum a law enforcement think tank which has closely examined cases of federal intervention in policing, said a constant theme runs through most every experience.

"Every police chief who has been through this said one of the biggest challenges is the department's relationship with the monitor," Wexler said. "In Oakland, after all this time, it's hard to know what success looks like."

On the cusp of 'sustainable reform'?

LeRonne Armstrong knew what he was walking into when he accepted Mayor Libby Schaaf's appointment as chief of police earlier this year.

For much of his career, the department has lingered in the shadow of scandal and under the thumb of a federal judge. Violent crime, meanwhile, has been nearly unrelenting.

Yet, there he was during the split-screen virtual announcement of his appointment, reacting with a double fist pump as if he had just won the lottery.

"This is a much different department than the one I came into 22 years ago," the chief said. "This was a department that had very little structure, outdated policies that weren’t contemporary. I think there is some really positive things that have come out of this negotiated settlement agreement."

In past years, Armstrong said the agency has been close to fulfilling terms of the agreement. But he said officer misconduct incidents have set the department back.

"Nobody wants to be in it for 18 years. But I think the culture of the department is changed. The way in which we police is much different."

Demonstrators attend a "Sit Out the Curfew" protest against the death of George Floyd who died on May 25 in Minneapolis whilst in police custody, along a street in Oakland, California on June 3, 2020. - US protesters welcomed new charges against Minneapolis officers in the killing of African-American man George Floyd -- but thousands still marched in cities across the country for a ninth straight night, chanting against racism and police brutality. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)
Demonstrators attend a "Sit Out the Curfew" protest against the death of George Floyd who died on May 25 in Minneapolis whilst in police custody, along a street in Oakland, California on June 3, 2020. - US protesters welcomed new charges against Minneapolis officers in the killing of African-American man George Floyd -- but thousands still marched in cities across the country for a ninth straight night, chanting against racism and police brutality. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)

And Armstrong has very personal stake in the department's latest attempt at a turn-around.

As a kid, the chief said following his February appointment that he "didn't feel safe," having lost a brother to gun violence. The loss stays with him, as he confronts a new surge of gun violence, this time as chief of police.

He also has designs on finally bringing the department into full compliance with the federal court by January 2022.

Last month, Warshaw appeared to suggest the department may be getting closer.

While acknowledging the city was still "struggling," the monitor publicly recognized Armstrong's early efforts as chief.

"Chief Armstrong has begun to bring to the agency a new level of accountability – and with it, a culture change that has long been elusive," Warshaw wrote in last month's report. "His commitment to strong principles of community values should be seen as a positive step towards sustainable reform."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oakland PD: A cautionary tale of fed intervention in local police

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