OAKLAND, Calif. - Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong was "not credible" when he denied knowing the details of a sergeant’s alleged misconduct in a case that’s at the heart of an unraveling scandal that could cost the chief his job, independent investigators found.
In addition, the investigators recommended that the chief should be found responsible for a "gross dereliction of duty," in commanding his team when he failed to properly investigate and follow-through after one of his sergeants was involved in a hit-and-run.
The new revelations about the high-profile probe were spelled out in two confidential reports, totaling about 80 pages, conducted by the law firm of Clarence Dyer and Cohen and obtained by KTVU.
Armstrong’s attorney fired back at the claims, calling them "baseless" and "unsupported."
In the reports, outside investigators wrote they didn’t believe Armstrong when he said he had no idea about the severity of a sergeant’s 2021 hit-and-run in San Francisco. Investigators also found that the department’s internal affairs division minimized the sergeant’s actions.
"Chief Armstrong’s claim that he was unaware of the facts of the vehicle collision seemed implausible and were inconsistent with the documentary record, which shows that he had been involved in the discussions with other commanders about the facts of the case," one of the reports says.
"Chief Armstrong’s denials that he spoke with any members of OPD regarding the incident were similarly implausible," attorneys with Clarence Dyer and Cohen wrote, "especially given the sensitive, potentially criminal nature of the case, and his regular meetings and informal discussions with the IAD Commander and other members of the Executive Command Staff."
People hold up signs in support of Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong who was put on administrative leave on the courthouse steps. Jan. 24, 2023
Mayor Sheng Thao placed Armstrong on administrative leave last month over the episode that’s become a political flashpoint involving the beleaguered department, City Hall, community groups, and federal officials overseeing reforms at the department.
Armstrong has since gone on the offensive, hiring a public relations firm and demanding he be reinstated to his job. He insisted he did not know about the magnitude of the allegations against the sergeant while leveraging the support of community groups such as the local NAACP chapter.
The embattled chief has accused federal monitor Robert Warshaw – who signed off on the outside report – of trying to sideline him as the police department was seeking to sunset a nearly two-decade long period of reforms.
"Once you ignore the report’s baseless speculations and unsupported conclusions, the factual story it tells confirms that the Chief acted appropriately based on the information presented to him at the time, and he should therefore be reinstated immediately," Armstrong’s attorney, Will Edelman, wrote in a statement to KTVU.
Edelman said he would not comment on the specifics of the confidential reports because they contain sensitive personnel information about officers. He added that there should be an investigation into who leaked this "misleading and factually incorrect information."
However, Armstrong’s attorney said he provided the mayor and the police commission a "detailed analysis of the inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and faulty logic of the report’s conclusions – including conclusions about his credibility – which defy common sense."
Armstrong’s actions have also raised questions about whether the Oakland Police Department will be able to be free of federal oversight. Civil rights attorneys are asking that it be extended by at least six months over questions about the department’s ability to police itself and hold officers accountable for misconduct.
Damages to this Mercedes Benz cost $14,000, insurance claim shows. Source: tort claim filed with Oakland
The questions about the chief’s credibility all stem from what happened in March 2021, when Sgt. Michael Chung struck the bumper off his neighbor’s Mercedes with his OPD-owned Chevrolet Tahoe in a San Francisco parking garage.
Video at the scene shows Chung – and his girlfriend who is also an Oakland police officer – stopping for five seconds and then taking off. Chung never reported the hit-and-run and when questioned about it eight months later, claimed he had "no recollection" of that day. Internal affairs investigators didn’t believe him. But the bureau’s captain, Wilson Lau, ordered a subordinate to leave pertinent facts out of the report, the Clarence Dyer and Cohen law firm found.
Several members of the Oakland Police Department’s command staff briefed the chief on the investigation during a weekly "Friday meeting" on Dec. 23, 2021. Some later told investigators with Clarence Dyer and Cohen that Armstrong "abruptly" shut down any questioning of the matter, according to one of the reports obtained by KTVU.
Some of the command staff members told investigators that Armstrong also didn’t ask to review the video of Chung’s car stopping at the scene and then leaving. And they said that the chief didn’t further probe who Chung’s passenger was – despite it being his girlfriend in a relationship that wasn’t properly disclosed to HR, according to the reports.
The "preponderance of evidence," the investigators said, "makes clear that [Armstrong] was knowledgeable about the facts of the case," but shutting down further questioning of the hit-and-run, did not hold his subordinate officers accountable for their actions.
"As Chief of Police, Chief Armstrong’s duties and responsibilities to hold all OPD members to the standard, policies and rules of the department are paramount and the evidence shows that he did not do so in this case," the lawyers wrote.
Armstrong told investigators with Clarence Dyer and Cohen that he signed off on the department’s internal investigation without reading it. The internal probe found the sergeant was in a "preventable collision" – not a hit-and-run. The sergeant’s discipline was counseling and training.
The chief’s attorney said in a statement to KTVU that it is a longstanding practice for a chief to not read every report in full submitted to him.
"The Chief relies on the three layers of supervisory review between himself and the investigator to vet the conclusions and recommendations in the report and to ensure they are supported by evidence documented in a thorough investigation," Edelman wrote in his statement to KTVU.
Armstrong’s attorney also denied he shut down questions at the December 2021 meeting when the internal affairs investigation was presented.
"No one present at the meeting expressed a desire to ask more questions or a belief that the chief needed more information before reaching an informed conclusion," Edelman wrote in his statement.
Armstrong’s attorney added that the report misstates key statements he made during a recorded interview, which repeatedly relies on "vague, subjective impressions without any factual or evidentiary support."
Nearly a year after the hit-and-run, Chung was involved in another incident – one that prompted city administrator Ed Reiskin to commission the independent investigation by Clarence Dyer and Cohen.
In that case, Chung fired a gun in the freight elevator of OPD headquarters on April 16, 2022. But Chung didn’t come forward until a week later, and told his superiors that he was suffering from PTSD stemming from working in the child porn unit and couldn’t remember firing his gun, or dumping the shell casings in the Bay.
The law firm investigators didn’t believe Chung’s story, according to the confidential report.
Chung was put on administrative leave that day and has not returned to work.
His back-to-back transgressions exposed misconduct at the highest levels in the department, Clarence Dyer and Cohen found.
"Some of the deficits appear to stem from a failure of leadership and a lack of commitment to hold members of the Oakland Police Department accountable for violations of its own rules," the investigators wrote. "These investigations revealed issues and shortcomings that go beyond the conduct of individual officers to the very question of whether the Oakland Police Department is capable of policing itself and effectively holding its own officers accountable for misconduct."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Feb. 11, 2023, to include a recommended finding for "gross dereliction of duty" finding against the police chief.
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez. Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at Evan.Sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @evansernoffsky