Racial disparities for black officers 'unacceptable,' Oakland police say

(Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images) 

Black police officers in Oakland are 37% more likely to have allegations against them sustained, according to the findings of independent consultants -- a result that the department acknowledged is "unacceptable." 

The 62-page ‘Police Discipline Disparity Study’ was made public late Friday by the Oakland Police Department, and it was conducted by the independent Hillard Heintze consulting company.  

In all, the consultants issued eight key findings.

Other notable ones include: Sergeants investigating misconduct complaints are also the ones adjudicating them raising questions of neutrality and biased decision-making --  or at least the perception of that --  and the internal affairs unit is understaffed for its caseload.

In addition, the majority of officers interviewed said they feel that there is a popularity contest at play in deciding who gets punished and who does not. 

Specifically, officers told the consultants that "power and friendships," even more than race, play key roles in determining who gets favored, or who is perceived to be favored. For example, officers believe that the “great street cop” or the “good dope guy” might get a pass during the disciplinary process, the study found. And officers said they fear if they complain, they may be ostracized or not get good assignments. 

Oakland police emailed a response, noting that the disparities identified in the report are “unacceptable."

"We are committed to mitigating any and all race and gender disparities within our systems and processes to ensure our employees regain a sense of trust and equitable treatment," the statement said.

Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin called the results of the report “very damning.” 

“These consultants basically said they are very biased in their discipline,” Chanin said. “That bodes very poorly for people in the street if they can’t be fair to their own.” 

Chanin also found it upsetting that a “gigantic number” of officers felt it was "who-you-know" as the driving force behind who got in trouble and who did not. 

“No one was really happy,” he said. 

Oakland police have been under a federal monitor since 2003, as a result of the notorious Riders case, where police were allegedly planting drugs on black men in the city.

In order to free themselves from this federal oversight, Oakland police must adhere to a list of reforms, which include internal affairs, training and addressing racial disparities.

Chanin and John Burris, another civil rights attorney, were the two lawyers who brought that case forward two decades ago and the two of them have been integrally involved in Oakland’s police reform efforts ever since. 

In March 2019, some African-American police officers wrote an open letter, detailing what they felt was a prejudiced culture in the department in terms of hiring, punishment and handing out assignments. 

In response, the consultants noted, then-Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and her command staff sought an independent review of their internal data to see if the perception of disparity was accurate. 

So Kirkpatrick hired the consultants to see if racial and gender bias existed in the discipline process. 

And they did.

After conducting surveys and a review of data, the consultants found that black officers were 37% more likely to have their complaints sustained, although they noted that race is not a factor when discipline is actually meted out. 

The data stems from 2014 to 2018, a tumultuous time for the department, which had five chiefs during those four years. 

The most notable chiefs during that span were Sean Whent, who lost his job in 2016 during a high-profile police sex abuse scandal and Kirkpatrick, who was fired in February. 

The consultants said that the officers they interviewed thought Kirkpatrick tried to improve the fairness and transparency of the process under her tenure. And they agreed that internal affairs investigations have “noticeably improved” in the past two years. Specifically, they noticed there was better documentation in the logs and notes and that superiors were not “simply signing off on investigations with minimal review.” 

Chanin, who said he has seen several drafts of this report over the last year, said he saw no evidence under Kirkpatrick’s tenure to lead him to agree with this conclusion.

 “I didn’t see any statistics or data that they gave that made it look like it improved since 2017,” he said.

According to the officers interviewed, most everyone was unhappy with the disciplinary process. 

Nearly half the respondents, no matter what the race, said they felt they were not treated with dignity and respect during internal investigations. When that question was broken down by race, Latino officers were the most dissatisfied. A total of 72.5% percent thought they were not treated with dignity and respect during internal investigations and black officers felt that way 44% of the time. Whites felt they weren’t treated with dignity and respect 48.5% of the time and Asians felt that way 10% of the time. 

And about 80% of the officers overall said that the disciplinary process was not fair. When this question was broken down by race, 87% of Latinos felt the process wasn’t fair, 78.5% of whites thought it wasn’t fair, 75% of blacks thought it wasn’t fair and 10% of Asians thought it wasn’t fair.

In conclusion, the consultants said that OPD leadership  “genuinely” appears to be attempting to improve and change the policies and practices of investigating complaints and disciplining officers. But, they warned, perceptions of distrust and bias in the disciplinary process will continue if leadership does not model more equitable behavior. 

In its statement, Oakland police vowed to partner with its Race and Equity Team to conduct an analysis of its disciplinary process and they will seek out the guidance of Stanford University sociologist and racial bias expert, Jennifer Eberhardt, who has consulted in the past for the department. 

Chanin said the department’s response to this report was “very disappointing.” 

“They said they are studying this, but the problems are happening right now,” he said. “They set no deadline to change. Why don’t they just issue the recommendations now instead of pondering them and getting to them later? There have been too many laters.”

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