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Transparency in Oakland police misconduct cases.

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

The Oakland police department that has been under federal oversight by U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick, steaming from a police misconduct case settlement in 2003,

lost a significant legal battle against the city of Oakland after a panel of three state appeals court justices ruled that officers being actively investigated for misconduct do not have the right to obtain confidential records pertaining to their case. This decision comes while the Oakland Police department is being examined by a 17 year long federal oversight committee, making recommendations for police reform within the department.

While the community has welcomed the oversight committee, the Oakland police department ex police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, asked for change in the 17-year-long federal oversight of the city’s Police Department before being fired after serving for three years. Kirkpatrick, who was fired on Feb. 20, wrote in an op-ed published in the East Bay Times that the U.S. Department of Justice should intercede, remove longtime police monitor Robert Warshaw and allow the Police Department to complete its reforms on its own. The decision by the appeals panel, said the state employment law that the Oakland Police Officers Association used in previous misconduct cases that requires police departments and civilian police oversight boards to hand over such documents to officers who are under investigation, will no longer apply. The appeals panels sided with Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker, who said the state law undermine the search for the truth and prevent a city from holding police officers accountable for wrongdoing.

The decision comes after the previous statement on Feb. 20 of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf

that the trust between the Police Commission and ex police chief Kirkpatrick was “irrevocably broken” and keeping Kirkpatrick in her job would prevent the city from moving forward and Police Commission Chair Regina Jackson said one reason the commission wanted Kirkpatrick to be dismissed is that the Police Department has still failed to comply with reforms that were ordered in the federal court settlement 17 years ago. The decision from the court examined a state law adopted in the mid-1970s titled the "Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, that gives law enforcement officers blanket job protections while limiting police departments in their efforts to investigate police officers for misconduct. The law allowed an officer to have a copy of the interrogation recording and be entitled to a transcribed copy of any notes made by a stenographer or to any reports or complaints made by investigators or other persons. This law could be used in the intimidation of witnesses and fellow officers.

The Oakland police department has seen a revolving door of police chiefs in the 17 years under the federal oversight committee. Ex police chief Kirkpatrick wrote before her firing “Like the nine chiefs before me, my efforts and that of the women and men of the department were thwarted by the very person whose job it is to oversee them: Robert Warshaw, the appointed monitor.” Kirkpatrick wrote, “The ever-changing mountain of bureaucracy he has instituted takes police officers off the streets and keeps them behind desks filling out forms and looking at hours of video, putting public safety at risk.” The Oakland Police Commission which is a civilian oversight body, main point of contention appears to be Chief Kirkpatrick’s exoneration of five officers involved in the 2018 police shooting of a homeless man after the commission wanted all five officers fired. Justice auditor Robert Warshaw audits was highly critical of Kirkpatrick’s leniency in that case. The Oakland police department has witnessed scandal after scandal under the 17 year federal oversight. In 2014, technicians were updating the police department's computer system which includes the body camera footage archive when an employee checked a box "preserve" instead of another box "preserve everything." This simple slip up was enough to erase a huge swath of recorded evidence. The mistake was caught a month later, and metadata was used to determine the amount of footage lost. Oakland police were quick to insist that no cases had been impacted and anything that had specifically been marked as "evidence" was stored elsewhere and yet this mass deletion only came to light because a defense attorney for a man charged in the 2013 killing of 66-year-old Judy Salamon had requested police body camera footage, only to be told it no longer existed.

The Oakland police union who have aggressively defended officers in previous misconduct cases have previously enjoyed the mutual agreement between police union and investigators who handed over their notes and reports about a case before conducting a second interview with an officer who is suspected of wrongdoing. The appeals court in their decision puts a halt to the practice saying "handing over records could severely hamper a the investigation of police misconduct . While officers do have a right to obtain a recording of their first interview before they’re interrogated a second time, wrote the justices, they don’t have the right to other records if investigators determine they’re confidential." The case is especially relevant to Oakland, which has two separate offices that investigate police misconduct: Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency, which was created by voters in 2016 and is staffed with civilian investigators who work under the guidance of the Police Commission, and OPD’s Internal Affairs Division, where police investigators work under the supervision of a captain who reports directly to the chief. The two offices are independent of each other and conduct separate but parallel investigations whenever officers are accused of violating city policy.

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