OAKLAND, Calif. - Two civil rights lawyers who sued Oakland police in the infamous "Riders" scandal are finally saying they believe it’s time to look at ending federal oversight after nearly 20 years.
Civil rights attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris, who are arguably the fiercest critics of the Oakland Police Department put in writing their reasons for wanting to close the chapter on the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, or NSA.
"After years of backsliding, there is real momentum toward substantive compliance with multiple outstanding NSA tasks," Chanin and Burris wrote. "The Oakland Police Department has moved from being the one of the worst police departments in the San Francisco Bay Area to being one of the best police departments in comparable cities in the country."
In an interview, Chanin added: "Assuming everything is properly handled, the figures show that OPD is ready to be on its own. There have been significant improvements in the past seven months and we can still go back if they behave inappropriately. But I’m cautiously optimistic that won’t happen. If the judge agrees, it's time for us to move aside."
Both attorneys represented plaintiffs in the Riders case, where four officers were accused of allegedly kidnapping, planting evidence and beating citizens, which all came to light in 2000, when a rookie cop outed them.
Instead of going through a civil trial, the city and police department agreed to enter an agreement requiring federal oversight. Since 2003, the police department has had to check in with Chanin, Burris and a federal judge and monitor, keeping them accountable on almost 50 tasks. It costs Oakland taxpayers about $1 million a year for this oversight.
But in court documents filed late Wednesday evening, both Chanin and Burris said they feel that after almost two decades, the department is now headed in the right direction under the new chief and is closing in on the number of tasks they need to complete to end the legal settlement. The attorneys had sought to end the federal oversight in 2016 too, but the Celeste Guap police sex abuse scandal derailed those plans.
Chanin and Burris also believe that while a federal judge would no longer have eyes on the department, oversight could come with the citizen-led Oakland Police Commission. The commission, which voters in 2016 agreed to create, already has flexed its muscles by writing new policies, disciplining officers and firing the old chief before endorsing the new one, LeRonne Armstrong.
"I feel more comfortable letting go because of the Oakland Police Commission," Chanin said in an interview.
Rashidah Grinage, who founded the Coalition for Police Accountability and has also been critical of the department, agrees that it's time to wind down the federal oversight and she points out that the police commission was created to ensure that the reforms are sustained into the future.
"We didn't know it was going to take this long," she said. "But this is what we prepared for. It's not bittersweet. It's just sweet. We got it done. Oakland should be gratified."
Throughout the assessment, Chanin and Burris used words like "positive momentum" and "progressive policing." They noted Armstrong’s "strong leadership" and his commitment to the "fair and unbiased treatment" of those in the community, which he vowed to do when he took the job six months ago.
Oakland police did not immediately respond for comment.
But in an interview with KTVU earlier this month, Armstrong summed up his short tenure so far.
"It’s been challenging," Armstrong said. "I knew that when I took on the job. But we made a lot of progress." On his first day of office, and often afterward, Armstrong has publicly vowed a commitment to change the culture within the department and to be as transparent as possible.
As one example, in June, Armstrong for the first time apologized for what happened at a youth-led George Floyd protest last summer and he also announced that he has issued more than 33 disciplinary actions to officers for using tear gas, in violation of department and city policy.
He acknowledged that despite a police narrative that had lingered over Oakland for a year, there was no imminent threat to officers or to the public on June 1, 2020. And using tear gas under these non-threatening circumstances goes against code and court order.
The recommendation to end the NSA is not a done deal, however, and comes with caveats.
There are still about five tasks that need to be completed, as well as an "alarming" number of reports that police are still failing to activate their body cameras, the civil rights attorneys documented.
But the court filing notes that "OPD is working systematically to meet their mandated timelines" and notes the overall progress the department is making.
Chanin and Burris also still want to see how the department handles an Instagram scandal, where it was exposed first by The Oaklandside that current and former Oakland police officers and other Bay Area law enforcement were actively participating on a racist, sexist page with the handle @crimereductionteam.
Results of this Internal Affairs investigation have not yet been made public and Chanin and Burris wrote that they hope that OPD is able to demonstrate that it can "self govern and hold itself to account."
But overall, Chanin and Burris said they are pleased with the progress the department has been making.
As an example, they cited that use-of-force cases have dropped. Last year, there were 1,654 Level 4 uses of force and 851 so far in 2021. A Level 4 use of force includes pointing a gun at a person, a twist lock, control hold and deploying a K-9 on a person.
Chanin and Burris also credited the department’s move to intelligence-based policing and the correlating drop in racial profile stops, as another example.
The proposal would still need the formal approval of U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick.
However, it looks as though the proposal has support from Robert Warshaw, a retired police chief from Rochester, NY, who has been appointed the federal monitor who also has to report to the judge in this case.
In his own report submitted Monday, Warshaw wrote that "Chief LeRonne Armstrong has continued to provide strong leadership – and in so doing, he has inspired the executive team and command staff to support the continuing transformation of the Department into what can be a model police agency."
Warshaw gave an example of a "Risk Management Meeting" that failed to meet the quality the court would have hoped for at this stage in the process and Armstrong quickly expressed his dismay. Warshaw said the chief’s actions were "reflective" and "quick" and is "the type of leadership that the Department has needed."
Chanin and Burris are also suggesting a "sustainability period," which would allow them some say over the department for up to one year after the oversight is severed.