Federal monitor: Oakland police fail to properly activate body cameras nearly 20% of the time

FILE ART - Oakland police

A court-appointed federal monitor tasked to oversee the Oakland Police Department found that officers failed to properly turn on their body cameras nearly 20 percent of the time and said they could do a much better job talking people down to de-escalate tense situations. 

Those were among the key findings in Robert Warshaw’s 65th status report of the department, which has been under federal oversight since 2003.

Warshaw’s report, filed in federal court on Dec. 19, found the department out of compliance or in partial compliance of four out of 50 “tasks” that Oakland police agreed to as part of a Negotiated Settlement Agreement. In all, the department is now out of full compliance with eight of the tasks. These tasks largely include topics such as reporting when force is used and how superiors review use of force investigations.

"I find the whole thing surprising," said civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, who along with John Burris, sued the police department in the landmark "Riders" case that prompted the federal oversight. "We were on the verge of leaving in 2014, 2015. It's just very disturbing.They're moving in the wrong direction." 

The federal monitor’s three biggest criticisms:

Oakland police failed to properly turn on their body cameras nearly 20 percent of the time

Warshaw found in 10 of the 55 investigations his team reviewed, Oakland police “either failed to activate their PDRDs or activated them late.” PDRDs stands for Personal Digital  Recording Devices, or body cameras.

Warshaw noted that this is a “a large number of deficiencies, especially considering the years that OPD has been using this technology.”  

In the majority of these cases, Warshaw said supervisors addressed the shortcomings with notes in the officers' files. In some of cases, Warshaw said the supervisor did not establish whether the officer had a pattern of failing to activate his or her body camera, and in two cases, Warshaw said that the failure to activate, or late activation, was not addressed by the supervisor.

Federal monitor Robert Warshaw walks into the Oakland police department. August 2019

Oakland paperwork needs to be filled out more completely

In some cases, Warshaw noted that officers indicated that their body cameras were activated, but failed to document that they had been activated late, or in some cases malfunctioned.  “Again, we found that this administrative section is sometimes inaccurate and does not reflect what occurred, even when the narrative for the reports may reflect accurate information,” Warshaw wrote.

He added: “Using this ‘boilerplate; or ‘pat’ language in the administrative section raises concerns about both the accuracy of reporting and the quality of supervisory reviews conducted. These kinds of reporting deficiencies should not be occurring at this late stage of the … process.”

In their legal filing to respond to Warchaw's criticisms, the Oakland city attorney’s office said the department is “working to correct both issues” as they relate to activating body cameras and using boilerplate language.

FILE ART - Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

Oakland police could do a much better job de-escalation situations

Warshaw specifically mentioned a time in which an officer fired a beanbag projectile round at a mentally ill man who was said to have assaulted a passerby with a large stick. Warshaw said several officers had been establishing a rapport with the mentally ill man, until a newly arrived officer started firing a bean bag at the man within 90 seconds of arriving on site.

“We again identified incidents in our reviews where we believe that additional verbal communications and explanation with persons who were contacted might result in a reduction in the need to use physical force, and incidents where OPD failed to identify themselves as police officers when contacting subjects,” Warshaw wrote.  Ultimately, Warshaw took the department out of compliance with this task, called the Force Review Board. This board has the power to recommend whether actions fell within policy, to recommend to the chief whether additional training is required and to forward sustained policy violations to the discipline officers. In this case, the Force Review Board found the officer's actions with the bean bag to fall within policy. 

Oakland attorneys disagreed with Warshaw’s assessment, arguing in court papers that Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick agreed that the scene supervisor should receive discipline “for not exercising better control and not making better tactical plans.” The incident prompted a review of best practices for people experiencing a mental health crisis, the city attorney’s office said. The city's response did not state what type of discipline the chief recommended or why it wasn't meted out. 

Finally, City Attorney David Pereda also argued that it was improper for the department to fall out of compliance over a disagreement with Warshaw.

The order, he said, never states that the monitoring team and police brass must agree on every case.

He wrote: “Even though the city aims to hit that mark, reasonable minds will sometimes differ, and that test is not workable."