Posted: 10:12 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, 2011

Oakland paying out extraordinary police abuse settlements

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special report Oakland police misconduct settlements photo
special report Oakland police misconduct settlements

OAKLAND, Calif. —

A two-month KTVU Channel 2 investigation has found Bay Area taxpayers have spent tens of millions of dollars in the last 10 years to pay for alleged victims of police abuse, with the managers of one local city in particular writing checks for especially extraordinary amounts.

Using the California Public Records Act, KTVU asked the 20 largest cities in the region how much they've paid out for claims, lawsuits and settlements involving alleged police misconduct in the last decade.

Although virtually every one of the Bay Area’s 101 cities have paid out amounts often in the hundreds of thousands to low millions, the top payouts, not expectedly, came from the three largest cities. What was unexpected was the breathtaking amount the smallest of the top three paid.

San Jose, the region’s largest city with more than 1 million residents, paid out $8.6  million.

Number two was San Francisco, with 800,000 people. The lodestar city of the Bay Area paid nearly $28 million during the same period.

However it was Oakland, with 400,000 residents, that won first place with more than $57 million in payouts in just the last 10 years.

The single biggest payout was in 2004, when the city paid almost $11 million for the notorious “Riders” case.

Oakland is shelling out all of that taxpayer money at a time when, ironically, it's running a $58 million deficit, laying off police and asking voters to approve a property tax hike.

We asked Oakland Police Department brass, the Oakland city administrator and the city attorney to provide some perspective on the huge, cumulative payout, but all refused. Late Friday, City Attorney Barbara Parker provided a written statement saying things are getting better.

Rocky Lucia, a partner in a prominent Bay Area law firm that often represents accused police officers, says the problem is less with the police than with Oakland city politicians and their hand-picked administrators.

"The city of Oakland is the most dangerous city in the state of California," Lucia pointed out. "The city of Oakland settles many cases they don't have to settle and I believe there is an element of politics that come into play when these cases are settled.

"If politics were to stay out of it, most cops would be vindicated in a court of law."

Attorney John Burris argued most of the cases are legitimate – and hard to prove. "There's a not a lot of lawyers that do this kind of work because it's very difficult and it's risky," Burris remarked.

Barry Krisberg of U.C. Berkeley’s Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, has studied the issue nationally. He called it "an epidemic."

"We're talking about Oakland, San Francisco, East Palo Alto, Richmond, Santa Rosa, Vallejo -- there's almost no city in the Bay Area that hasn't been touched by this," Krisberg said.

The scholar said the main problem is training officers better and allowing police administrators to trump influential police unions and laws – which would not only advance justice but save taxpayers countless millions of dollars desperately needed elsewhere.

"If as a police chief, I can't even fire somebody," Krisberg added. "And it's very difficult to fire anybody. Increasingly, you're giving citizens no other choice but to go into the courtroom and that's an expensive, difficult way to go."

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