Oakland Police Commission must grapple with competing findings on death of homeless man

Image 1 of 2

When the Oakland Police Commission meets on Thursday night, they will discuss what to do about the competing findings regarding the death of a sleeping, homeless man who was killed by police last spring when he woke, holding a gun in his hand.

The latest report, released last week under a new police transparency law, exonerated four officers for the death of Joshua Pawlik, finding that they didn’t violate department policy. The investigator with the Community Police Review Agency also found that two superiors failed to properly oversee and manage the situation on March 11, 2018, but did not recommend termination.

By contrast, in March, Federal Monitor and Compliance Director Robert Warshaw, who has official oversight over the police department, found otherwise: Not only did he say that the same four officers violated the department’s lethal use-of-force policy, he also specifically called Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick’s clearing of her officers “disappointing and myopic.”

The two reports set up an uncharted situation in Oakland. The civilian police commission’s investigation contradicts what Warshaw said, even though no official discipline, if any, has been meted out in regards to Pawlik's death. And the police commission can still  decide to reject the CPRA's findings.

Complicating matters is the fact that the chair of the Oakland Police Commission is frustrated with the process. Her commission wasn't alerted that the report was even concluded until it was sent to the police and other city leaders, and then she said she demanded to see it, too. Plus, she added, as it stands now, she feels the report is incomplete.  

"Exonerating the four officers is saying that nothing bad happened,” said Regina Jackson, who was appointed by Mayor Libby Schaaf to the position. “Somebody is dead. This is not just a supervisorial error.” 

The CPRA is supposed to be the investigative arm of the commission, which is comprised of civilians and became an official city body in 2017 with the approval of Measure LL.  But Jackson said there is “de jure” and “de facto,” meaning there is what is legally supposed to occur and what really occurs. 

She pointed out that her commission is often “handcuffed” in what they can do, as the CRPA still has no Inspector General, no executive director and no full-time legal counsel that is independent of the city attorney and city administrator.  The CPRA investigator admitted in the report that only one interview was conducted because so much time had lapsed between Pawlik's death and when the investigation began, long after Oakland police conducted its own review. 

Neither the city attorney’s nor the city administrator’s offices responded immediately for comment, but they have been on record saying that the way the ordinance was written means the police commission’s future inspector general must fall under City Administrator Sabrina Landreth’s direct supervision. Changing that chain-of-command, they have said, would require an amendment to the measure. Still, last week, over those objections, the City Council adopted a resolution to direct the city administrator to go forward with the Inspector General job description as written by the police commission.

In a statement, Schaaf’s spokesman Justin Berton, said: “It’s critical for the community to have a voice in this process. We’re grateful the civilian police commission will play an important role in this issue.”

Since Warshaw's findings, Sgt. Francisco Negrete and Officers William Berger, Brandon Hraiz and Craig Tanaka  have been on administrative leave.

Sgt. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, told the Bay Area News Group, that the CPRA exonerations should result in the officers being returned to active duty as soon as possible.

“For over a year this incident has been the subject of public debate that resulted in the unfair criticism and ridicule of these officers,” Donelan said. He noted the district attorney and police department’s previous findings and said despite that “These officers who risked their lives, suffered the public abuse of critics, cooperated with multiple investigations and have been completely vindicated, inexplicably they have not been returned to duty.”