What's next for Oakland now that police chief has been put on administrative leave

The Oakland Police Department is no stranger to what seems like a revolving door of police chiefs.

LeRonne Armstrong is the 12th chief since 2009, following the abrupt termination of his predecessor Anne Kirkpatrick. 

But none of the chiefs who led the department during that time period was put on administrative leave like Armstrong was on Thursday. 

In an unprecedented move, newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao, who has been in office for two weeks, put Armstrong on paid administrative leave, one day after an independent law firm found he mishandled two Internal Affairs investigations by not holding a sergeant – and relevant superiors who downplayed his actions – properly accountable. 

Assistant chief Darren Allison will lead the department in the interim. 

The process of how – and if – Armstrong can come back fall into unchartered territory. It's assumed that the same law firm that found the chief mishandled his sergeant's behavior will continue looking into him. How long that will take is anyone's guess. 

In addition, who has power over hiring and firing the police chief in Oakland is complicated. 

Because the police department has been under federal oversight for the last 20 years, there are at least three bodies with the power to hire and fire the chief. 

The mayor has the power to hire the chief, and the power to fire – with the approval of the federal monitor. 

The federal monitor is Robert Warshaw, who works for the U.S. District Court, and has firing powers, too. The monitor was put in place after the police department was sued in 2003 over officer corruption in what is known as the Riders case.

The Oakland Police Commission, comprised of citizens, also has the power to fire a chief if it is "with cause." The commission and Mayor Libby Schaaf fired Kirkpatrick in 2020, but a civil judge later ruled that it was without cause. 

Finally, U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick, who oversees the police department's reform efforts, has a lot of sway with his rulings and opinions because of his position. 

The next federal oversight court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 24, where the matter will surely be discussed. Most stakeholders are looking to this hearing to figure out what's going to happen next.

"A lot will depend on what happens at this court hearing," said Rashidah Grinage, co-founder of the group, Coalition for Police Accountability, a close watchdog of the Riders suit. "The judge should figure out what should happen. He will need to determine whether the chief should be restored or not. I think that should help inform the mayor's decision." 

No one from the mayor's office nor the city would respond to requests for in-person or phone interviews on Friday, despite Thao issuing a brief statement Thursday evening. 

Thao informed the city council about Armstrong's leave at a closed-door session earlier on Thursday afternoon. The council members had no prior knowledge that she and the city administrator were going to take action, according to Councilwoman Carroll Fife, who declined to say more about the private meeting. 

MORE: OPD mishandles sergeant's hit-and-run and discharge of gun in elevator, investigation finds

Unlike rank-and-file police officers, Armstrong, who took office in February 2021, is not in a union. Officers in the union have a more clear-cut disciplinary process. 

In civil rights attorney Jim Chanin's opinion, there hasn't been enough information made public at this point to decide what to do about Armstrong, who hasn't responded for comment. 

The news about Armstrong's leave also came as a complete surprise to Chanin and his colleague, John Burris, the lawyers at the center of the Riders civil suit against the police department. Instead of going to trial, Oakland agreed to put its police department under federal oversight, where all the stakeholders meet regularly before a judge and federal monitor to keep tabs on the reforms OPD is making. 

Chanin and Burris represented the plaintiffs in that suit and have attended every court hearing in the two decades since. 

Last May, both Chanin and Burris had suggested that this federal oversight finally end after 20 years. The finish line was supposed to be in June. 

Both attorneys credited Armstrong's strong leadership and were pleased that OPD had met most of its goals to stop racial profiling and curb the unnecessary use of force. 

Now, both are questioning whether the end of the oversight will or should still happen. 

Chanin added that he will fight tooth and nail to keep the oversight in place for as long as necessary. 

Thao placed Armstrong on leave one day after the firm, Clarence, Dyer and Cohen, made public a 16-page report detailing how there were coverups by superiors while investigating a sergeant. The investigation has cost the city $517,000 to date, according to a city spokeswoman. 

The sergeant ripped the bumper off a neighbor's Mercedes in San Francisco in 2021 and didn't report it, and then fired a gun in an OPD freight elevator in 2022, and initially didn't come forward, even throwing the shell casings into the bay.

The report identified a specific captain who downplayed those illegal behaviors and revealed "systemic deficiencies" in how Internal Affairs investigations are handled. 

The firm's report also directly pointed fingers at Armstrong, who they said violated department rules because he failed to hold officers accountable and allowed them to escape discipline. The sergeant is still employed with the department, also on administrative leave for the last nine months. 

"Most disturbingly," the report authors wrote, "some of the deficits appear to stem from a failure of leadership and a lack of commitment to hold members of the Oakland Police Department accountable for violations of its own rules." 

Though the mayor said in a statement that she couldn't discuss details of the chief's leave, citing personnel reasons, she did intimate that "more findings would be forthcoming."

As a result of these findings, Oakland Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas stressed on Friday that the city administrator should move Internal Affairs investigations to the citizen-led Community Police Review Agency because "OPD should not investigate its own officers’ misconduct." 

In an interview, Pete Dunbar, a former Oakland deputy police chief, said putting Armstrong on administrative leave "didn't feel right" to him, especially noting the timing. 

In his opinion, Dunbar said that it would be "great" if Armstrong could come back, especially because it's frustrating for the public not to have a functioning police department when citizens are asking, "Whose running the show?" 

"But I've rarely seen a chief come back from administrative leave," he said.  

KTVU's Henry Lee contributed to this report.