Completed reforms put Oakland Police Department in positive light

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -- Following years of court-ordered changes and federal oversight, the Oakland Police Department has nearly completed some major reforms and is now being looked at in a new light after finding inspiration from another troubled city.

For years, the department was being sued over alleged corruption and brutality while suffering from a lack of community trust.

Back in 2003 the Oakland Police Department was in a state of turmoil. It faced lawsuits over corruption and brutality and was suffering a crisis of leadership and community trust.

Things were so bad a federal monitor was brought in to oversee a dramatic change in the way the department was run.

Now, 12 years later, the Oakland Police Department is on the verge of completing major reforms that some say actually put OPD ahead of many other departments across the country.

Many of these changes didn't originate in Oakland.

In some ways, the transformation can be traced back to another city that was also in turmoil but started to turn things around.

That city is Detroit.

The name alone conjures up images of urban decay; a city wracked by poverty and crime and with a police department embroiled in controversy.

When KTVU went to Detroit in the winter of 2013, it found residents who found little to praise in the beleaguered police department.

"The cops around here? Nah. They don't come when you call. None of that," one Detroit resident told KTVU during that visit.

And yet Oakland turned to Detroit for guidance.

"I went to Detroit twice actually," Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent told KTVU. Chief Whent said Detroit was also under a federal mandate to reform its department.

Slowly but surely, the Detroit Police Department turned things around, largely based on the concept of constitutional policing.

Oakland civil rights attorney Jim Chenin also went to Detroit.

"When I went to Detroit I met the chief there, the first thing he said to me was Constitutional policing is good policing," Chenin told KTVU.

"So here we have a city that has more problems than Oakland and has a very tough crime problem, and yet the chief was saying that in Detroit," said Chenin.

Chenin was one of the attorneys who filed the legal action that resulted in Oakland's police reform process.

Oakland Police Chief Whent says constitutional policing is simply this: "We, the police, are not above the law. If we're going to enforce the law then we have to respect it. Right? So we expect our officers to treat people appropriately"

That means citizens aren't randomly stopped, searched and questioned if they haven't committed a crime.

A negotiated settlement agreement or NSA required Oakland to make 51 specific changes in how the department and its officers operate.

In the first two years of the NSA, virtually nothing happened. There were shake ups in OPD leadership. Whent was made Chief 21 months ago.

"Cops are somewhat resistant to change. So that's always difficult," Whent told KTVU.

But slowly, one by one, almost all of the 51 reform mandates have been met.

One of them was to require officers to wear body cameras. The department says the video from those cameras more often than not clears officers accused of wrong doing.

FBI crime statistics indicate overall crime is down 5 percent over the last three years, as are complaints of officer misconduct, according to Chenin.

"That proved to me that this wasn't some liberal fantasy or pie in the sky dream, but something you could really do in a police department in the United States in the 21st century," explained Chenin.

OPD also changed its foot-pursuit policy.

Instead of jumping fences to physically confront suspects officers now set up a perimeter and give suspects a chance to surrender.

Chenin explained that leads to fewer injuries for both suspects and officers and leads to fewer lawsuits.

"The number of complaints we get leading to any kind of lawsuit is way down," said Chenin

Chief Whent said he's proud of the progress.

"In the end of this, I think what the city gets is a police department that treats its citizens fairly, with respect, behaves in a constitutional manner, but is also effective at reducing crime," said Whent.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Chief Whent deserves more credit for the changes.

"Our police chief is very humble but he's been flown out twice to address the president's special committee on building community trust with police," Schaaf told KTVU.

Still, Schaaf says Oakland has a long way to go, but there's a sense the police department has turned a corner.

"We don't expect people to forget bad behavior of the past," explained the mayor. "We know we're going to have to continue to work hard to earn that trust every day."

Chief Whent agreed.

"The department's learned a lot of lessons from mistakes and I think are doing a good job," said Whent.

When asked if OPD is a "kinder, gentler" department he said, "In some ways it's kinder gentler but it's not kinder toward crime."

OPD is now in compliance with 48 of the 51 mandates.

Chief Whent told KTVU he hopes the department will be in compliance with the remaining three by the time the next report on reform is due to the federal monitor in April.