Oakland police commission investigating arrest of former council member

The Oakland Police Commission has launched an investigation into the arrest last week of former councilmember Wilson Riles Jr. at the city's Planning and Building Department.

Commission chair Regina Jackson called Riles' arrest a "travesty" during Thursday's meeting, where Riles and dozens of supporters spoke out.

"No one should have that kind of treatment for an argument," Jackson said.

The Alameda County District attorney's Office indicated on Thursday that it would not charge Riles for the incident.

Police had arrested him on Oct. 17 on suspicion of obstructing a police officer and battery of a police officer. He was booked in Santa Rita Jail until he posted $20,000 bail.

Planning department staff called police while Riles was having an argument over codes for temporary structures in his backyard, including a sweat lodge, part of his Native American spiritual practices.

After reviewing body camera video earlier this week, Oakland police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick ordered an internal affairs investigation. The Police Commission indicated Thursday that its own investigation was already underway.

Riles supporters argued Thursday that, aside from the arrest, the underlying issue involved religious freedom. The planning department has been trying to halt he and his partner from practicing Native American ceremonies in his backyard on 39th Avenue.

The dispute dates back years. Riles and his partner, Patricia St. Onge, had neighbors complain to various city departments about his use of a sweat lodge, saying they were bothered by the smoke.

The planning department told him to submit plans, which he did, and they were rejected. But the city's Planning Commission and later the City Council overturned that decision on appeal. Even so, Riles said a city inspector returned to his home about three weeks ago and told him there had been further neighbor complaints.

"We have a city staff culture that creates unexamined complaint- driven responses to community concerns," St. Onge said at Thursday's meeting. "It's a planning issue, it's a zoning issue? No. It's a bigotry issue."

When Riles went to the planning department on Oct. 17, he said he demanded that an inspector look up the city code. When the inspector refused, Riles said he asked to speak to his supervisor. As he was leaving, police arrived and slammed him to the ground without indicating they were going to arrest him, Riles said.

Riles' attorney, civil rights attorney Walter Riley, said Thursday that he had still not received a police report or body camera video from the officers and wants to receive that before filing a formal complaint on behalf of his client.

He alleged that the officers were likely dishonest in their report as they said "stop biting" during Riles' arrest.

"You all know Wilson Riles and you know he was not biting," Riley said. He alleged that the officers said it to bolster the case for the use of force in their body camera video.

"Officers who lie in their report should be punished," he said. Riley pointed out that there was no underlying reason given for the arrest, the charges alleged by police were for resisting their attempts to arrest him.

"When that happens it's suspect reporting and it's suspect police conduct," he said.

Cat Brooks, an activist with the Anti Police-Terror Project, said that the incident "highlights what an epidemic" there is of police violence against racial minorities, where even a former elected official like Riles is subject to police violence in a city office.

"This isn't a few bad apples," Brooks said. "The whole orchard is rotten."