Oakland police chief search hasn't started; critics say commission is dysfunctional

It's been four months since Mayor Sheng Thao fired the city's police chief – and there's no timeframe on when Oakland will get a new top cop.

That's because the search hasn't even begun. 

In a one-on-one interview with KTVU on Tuesday, Thao said that the Oakland Police Commission has not yet agreed on hiring an executive search consultant to start the process of looking for a new chief. 

"And I am pushing and pressuring them to actually finally agree on a consultant," she said, adding that she has set aside money for just this very thing. "We are waiting for the police commission to actually go and sign with the consultant." 

It appears agreeing on a consultant is just one indication of a deeper and more complex problem facing the most powerful independent, civilian-led police commission in the country, which critics say is hamstrung by dysfunction and may end up extending federal oversight over the beleaguered Oakland Police Department. 

Critics want the chair of the police commission to step down from her leadership position.  

"I wouldn't know why they haven't found a consultant, except that they are inept," said Rashidah Grinage, a coordinator at the Coalition for Police Accountability, which helped establish and now monitors the activities of the Oakland Police Commission, comprised of seven volunteer members. 

Most of the problems, critics say, stem with the chair, Tyfahra Milele.

In a six-page letter sent this week to the rest of the police commissioners, Cathy Leonard, president of the Coalition for Police Accountability, laid out the group's 10 main concerns with Milele's leadership. 

The group is asking for Milele to step down as chair, which could happen only if the majority of commissioners vote to remove her as their leader. 

In their opinion, the group stressed Milele's lack of transparency, citing her submission of a proposed budget to the City Council without sharing it with commissioners despite their repeated requests, as one example. 

Other complaints include:

  • Milele attended an Oakland Police Department retreat before Armstrong was fired and didn't tell any of the other commissioners about it.
  • Milele failed to subpoena records related to the hit-and-run and elevator shooting investigations into Sgt. Michael Chung, which led to the firing of the chief.
  • Milele interfered with the work of the commission's Inspector General, prompting an Ethics Commission complaint.
  • Milele has canceled police commission meetings without the proper noticing.
  • Milele has "failed to conduct the Police Commission meetings in a fair and respectful manner," allowing commissioners to verbally attack each other.

"If she is allowed to remain as chair…the damage done…will be significant," Leonard's letter states. "Losing the credibility and trust of the community, the city and the federal court may have the effect of prolonging" the federal oversight over the police department. 

For her part, Milele said she would discuss the criticisms on Tuesday evening, but about two hours before the interview, asked to reschedule it. When asked what time she could be available on Wednesday morning, Milele did not respond to a specific time.  

Instead, Milele wrote up responses to queries about the delayed search for the police chief and the atmosphere of the commission under her leadership.

She wrote that the commission is "very actively involved in searching for a new police chief," saying that on Tuesday afternoon, "we worked diligently on this paramount assignment, as we have on multiple occasions."

She was not specific on who met or what they achieved.

Milele did acknowledge that there is "unusual political turmoil that [is] infect[ing] the process." 

She did not agree with the description of "one or two commissioners" that the volunteer group is dysfunctional. Instead, she called the commission "extraordinarily transparent and non-partisan."

Without being specific as to whom or what she was referring to, Milele added: "To engage with unreasonable political ideologues with ambitious personal agendas does no service to the people of Oakland. We should have all learned this watching the responses to other ideologues using Trumpian tactics."

After this story was published, Milele issued a press release claiming that the Oakland Police Commission's committee charged with finding a new police chief had met with the city's HR department and a consulting firm on Tuesday night. It's unclear why Milele did not mention the meeting in her text message response to questions posed by KTVU about the search process. 

Despite being hamstrung in some areas, the police commission has moved forward on at least one important position. 

Last week, the commission announced they hired Mac Muir as head of the Civilian Police Review Agency, or CPRA. which is an investigative body of civilians who examine allegations of police misconduct and recommend discipline. 

The Oaklandside reports that Thao wants to get rid of OPD's Internal Affairs Division and grow CPRA’s staff from nine investigators to 22. 

Milele also has her share of support from the community. 

Former Alameda County Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley spoke at a May 25 police commission saying he thinks Milele should keep her post as chair. 

He stressed having the continuity of leadership, adding, "it takes time to get up to speed," especially if someone's main job is not in law enforcement. 

Milele holds a doctorate in comparative literature from UC Berkeley and is the former executive director of Camp Phoenix. 

"From my viewpoint, I have a very positive view of this commission," Wiley told the commission. "And I think that her leadership should continue." 

Wiley did not address, however, the fact that this commission hasn't even started looking for a new police chief. 

In an interview, police commissioner Regina Jackson told KTVU that it's not even necessary to spend the money to hire a consultant to search for a police chief. 

In fact, when she was chair for three years, she declined spending $850,000 on a consultant to find a new chief in February 2020, when the police commission fired Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. 

Instead, Jackson said, she and her fellow commissioners rolled up their sleeves and conducted the search themselves, despite it being a lot of work. In the end, they chose Armstrong, whom Thao fired in February. 

It's no surprise that the search for a chief is lagging because under Milele's leadership, Jackson said the commission is "ineffective" and "dysfunctional."

There are real consequences for this dysfunction, Jackson said. And the residents of Oakland are paying for it.

"Violence in Oakland is off the chains," said Jackson, who said she was speaking as an individual citizen and 'chair emeritus,' and not on behalf of the commission, on which she still sits. "And here we are lagging on finding the chief, the public safety person? It's painful to watch."

KTVU's Andre Senior and Allie Rasmus contributed to this report. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@fox.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez