Oakland police under-report use-of-force, department audit finds

A new report from the Oakland Police Department's Office of the Inspector General concludes that in nearly half the cases reviewed, officers under-reported when they used force to detain someone and that police were much quicker to use force on African-Americans and Latinos.

The two key findings:

-- Of 47 use-of-force incidents sampled and reviewed, 18 (involving 31 officers) were not in compliance with policy requirements. Seventeen of these went unreported altogether, where no use-of-force form was  completed, the OIG found. 

-- The percentage of African Americans detained  – and who police used force on but the cases were underreported --  is higher than the percentage of African-American arrestees.  For example, there were five cases where the audit determined a "weaponless defense technique," like a takedown or a leg sweep, should have been reported as a use of force but was not.  Of that number,  four people were Black and one was Latino. The auditors found another 12 incidents involving 19 people where the pointing of a firearm should have been reported as a use of force but was not. Of that number, 17 were African American and two were Latino.  "When force goes unreported, it inhibits the department's efforts to accurately assess potential racial disparities in the use of force," the OIG wrote. 

"I find the report very troubling for a number of reasons," civil rights attorney Jim Chanin said in an interview Tuesday. "This is new. We didn't even know about these problems." 

In regards to using force on minorities, Chanin added: "Even if these uses of force were within policy, if they are using it disproportionately on Blacks and Latinos, that is illegal and unconstitutional. There is a strong suggestion that they are resorting more quickly to force with African Americans." 

The OIG auditors, who posted their 35-page report online, did say that they found that all the uses of force they reviewed seemed reasonable and fell within policy. A use of force in police parlance is when any physical or mechanical intervention is used to defend, control, overpower or restrain the resistance of a person. Pointing a gun at someone is considered a use of force.

The lead auditors are Lt. Angelica Mendoza, Sgt. Michale Valladon and Sgt. Jeffrey Thomas, and their role was court-mandated by a lawsuit Chanin and colleague John Burris filed nearly 16 years ago in an effort to reform the Oakland Police Department. 

The auditors recommended that the department retrain its officers on pointing firearms and how to write reports, clarify "weaponless defense techniques" like takedowns and discipline repeat violators. 

And in a letter to the city administration, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said that her department plans to "work collaboratively" with the Police Commission on any policy changes that involve use of force. The department already has undergone some of the training policies recommended by the OIG. 

In a statement to KTVU, Kirkpatrick wrote: "The department is committed to introspection and is willing to accept and correct our shortcomings in reporting force." 

The genesis for the audit came after an earlier review where police were reporting a downward trend in the number of pointing of firearm incidents. There was a steady decline in reported uses of force between 2013 and 2017, and a 44-percent reported decrease in pointing a firearm between 2016 and 2017, the Inspector General wrote. In addition, Independent Auditor Robert Warshaw in the fall of 2018, questioned whether the drop in use-of-force cases was as dramatic as the police had claimed. 

At that time, Kirkpatrick ordered officers to undergo a "refresher training" on when to report use of force, and the number of reported uses of force incidents increased dramatically by nearly 300 percent from January to May 2018 and January to May 2019, according to the report.

In March 2018, auditors decided to look deeper into the issue and they launched a more comprehensive review. They determined there were 957 incidents where there was no associated use of force report. The OIG auditors reviewed documentation for 154 incidents and selected 47 to sample. 

Here's some of what they found:

-- In some of the cases, officers often couldn't find video of the incident, delayed their body camera activation, and turned off their cameras citing "administrative purposes." In 18 of 19 cases, the auditors found that officers had not complied with turning on their body cameras. In 13 of those cases, for example, the officers couldn't find their video. 

-- On one occasion, officers were chasing a person and "an officer forcefully pushed the subject, causing him to fall on the ground against a fence." The reporting officer stated in his report "no known witnesses." But OIG's review of the associated video footage identified multiple witnesses on scene when the force in question was used, the OIG report found.

-- Another time, a detained subject started to run from an officer, and the officer grabbed him by his hair, pulling him to the ground. "The officer failed to articulate and document in his report that he pulled the subject by his hair," the report found. 

-- There were 12 incidents involving 21 officers who did not report their pointing of a firearm.

-- And the OIG auditors said supervisors should be doing more. Here's one example in its entirety.

"An officer wrote in his report and ancillary documents (Probable Cause Declaration), "Officers attempted to grab the defendant's right arm while giving him commands to place his hands behind his back but he immediately flexed his arms and began to pull away from officers. I attempted to de-escalate the situation, but the defendant turned towards officers and begun to push the officer who had control of his right arm," yet the officer states in his report, "I did not use or observe any force." The supervisor should have questioned how the officer attempted to de-escalate the situation, and ultimately inquired how the officer was able to get the subject to comply with his commands after the subject fled on foot, especially since the incident response included nearly two squads of officers and their supervisors with multiple deployments of departmental rifles and firearms. Considering the subject was arrested for Resisting and Obstructing 148(a) p.c. and Battery on an Officer 243(b) p.c., the supervisor should have reviewed all available ancillary documents and PDRD footage. In this incident, the initial stop of the subject was for a traffic equipment violation. There was no mention of the initial violation reason for the stop in the report and/or the said vehicle's registration status, no citation was given to the subject and the status of the subject's vehicle was left unknown. A more detailed review by the supervisor would have presented an opportunity to identify any unreported uses of force and correct the officer's performance."

Because of this new report, Chanin said he's wondering about the department's past release of use-of-force data: "I question whether any of the (older) statistics on use of force had any validity at all."