Civil rights attorneys say end to OPD federal oversight is historic accomplishment

A judge is expected to find that the Oakland Police Department is in substantial compliance with roughly 50 tasks and reforms mandated because of a legal agreement negotiated more than 20 years ago, ending federal oversight of the agency, which has cost the city about $1 million a year. 

"The Oakland Police Department has reached a significant milestone," Federal Monitor Robert Warshaw wrote to the court this week. "Chief [LeRonne] Armstrong and the leadership of the Department are to be commended for their tenacity and commitment to … modern, progressive policing have been met." 

At a Wednesday evening news conference, Armstrong along with Mayor Libby Schaaf expressed optimism. They expect a ruling next week. 

"We await the judge's orders and I am optimistic that we are proving to the public that we have reformed," Armstrong said. 

Civil rights attorney John Burris and Jim Chanin, who sued Oakland in 2000 on behalf of 119 plaintiffs in the infamous Riders case, said they anticipated that U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick will issue an order that the city is in compliance with all but one task and thus allow them to enter into the one-year sustainability period.

This is a marked change from what a federal monitor felt in 2019, when he wrote that police "continue to struggle" with identifying problems and finding effective solutions to them. 

"This is a historic accomplishment," Burris said, "in that it has been along a winding road with many stops and starts. 

Instead of taking the case to trial, a judge placed OPD under federal oversight in 2003. The oversight was supposed to last five or so years, but has dragged on more than two decades as the reforms hadn't been met until now.

The Riders suit alleged that Oakland police engaged in a long pattern of brutality and racial profiling, and that some officers even planted drugs on people and wrote false reports. 

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Burris noted that the oversight, including monthly check ins with a judge and independent monitor, has led to a change in police culture from "top to bottom."

As one example, payouts to plaintiffs because of police brutality and excessive force have dropped dramatically. A KTVU investigation found that Oakland police paid $57 million between 2000 and 2010 because of police force suits – a number than dropped to $2.6 million from 2015 to 2020. 

Both Chanin and Burris credit much of the culture change to the current chief, whom they say has been a champion of progressive policing. They noted Armstrong’s "strong leadership" and his commitment to the "fair and unbiased treatment" of those in the community. 

Armstrong ended up apologizing a year after his officers deployed tear gas at a youth-led George Floyd rally in the summer of 2020, saying that there was no need to have done that because the crowd had not been violent as police had originally said. 

The one task left of the 50 reforms involves disparity of discipline. 

Burris added that the time has come for Oakland police to stand on their own. 

"If the department remains committed to the reforms,"Burris said, "then people will have a department that can be proud. "