San Francisco Chronicle
Oakland police reinforce inept, corrupt reputation
Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong is at the center of a controversy that might cost him his job, a situation that is both frustrating and all too familiar. The scandalplagued department has had 12 police chiefs over two decades, including Armstrong, an Oakland native who was named chief in February 2021.
On Jan. 19, Mayor Sheng Thao placed Armstrong on administrative leave after a report came out that said the department had botched the handling of two officer misconduct cases. Armstrong has denied the claims in the report and demanded his reinstatement.
The worst aspect of this latest crisis, regardless of whether an ongoing investigation clears Armstrong of wrongdoing, is that it reinforces the public’s perception of the Oakland Police Department as hopelessly inept or corrupt or both. And it gives people even more cause to question the department’s capacity to hold the bad guys accountable, whether they work for OPD or not.
“As an Oaklander of two decades watching, I see the department go a couple of years without big scandals, and I see everybody start getting this sense of security that we’re on the right path,” said Brian Hofer, CEO of Secure Justice and chair of the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission. “Then boom, a major scandal pops up. … It’s really sad to see.”
Here’s what we know about the current turmoil: An OPD sergeant and officer were involved in a hit-and-run in San Francisco in 2021. OPD Internal Affairs investigated the incident and Armstrong signed off on a light punishment of counseling and training for the sergeant. The same sergeant discharged his gun in an elevator at the department’s headquarters in 2022, which prompted the city to hire outside investigators to look into both incidents.
The outside investigators — San Franciscobased law firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen — claimed in a Jan. 18 filing in federal court that Armstrong violated department standards by failing to review evidence from the two instances before closing the investigations.
At a Tuesday press conference outside of Alameda Superior Court, Armstrong denied the allegations and said he had followed the proper processes in both cases, but the department’s federal monitor had taken over the investigation, preventing him from disciplining the officer.
That same day, the judge managing federal oversight of OPD said at a hearing that “significant cultural problems within the department remain unaddressed.”
The department has been under federal oversight for two decades, since “the Riders” scandal, which involved allegations that four OPD officers beat and planted evidence on six individuals in West Oakland.
Twenty years after the Riders scandal, Hofer said, residents are still talking about it.
“There’s a wound Oaklanders have and when something like this happens and the community can think another officer is getting away with something, that wound just can’t heal,” Hofer said.
George Galvis, the executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, couldn’t mask his frustration over OPD’s latest trouble. Galvis is one of the organizers behind Town Nights, an antiviolence program launched through Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention in 2021.
“A lot of times these chiefs — they sing, but they don’t bring it,” Galvis said. “They have the rhetoric around building community trust, wanting accountability to wipe out the few rotten apples. But it’s not one apple, it’s the entire barrel.”
OPD’s recent history includes a police chief involved in the disturbing alleged cover-up of a sexual abuse scandal involving officers and a teenage girl; five Oakland police officers who were involved in the fatal shooting of homeless man that spurred public outcry and firings; accusations that the department failed to adequately review its use-of-force incidents; and the firing of a police chief for withholding information from the federal oversight authority.
This all happened within the past seven years.
Armstrong, a 24-year veteran of the Police Department, was appointed almost two years ago as a champion of reform. A year after stepping in as chief, the department’s federal monitor issued a glowing report and encouraged the “department leadership to remain vigilant to maintain this newfound compliance.”
According to both Hofer and Galvis, the current controversy represents a major setback in the efforts to rebuild faith in the Police Department. Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, is less generous:
“This just proves that when it comes to the whole policing system, the only answer is to dismantle and rebuild a new version of public safety in Oakland, something that the community wants and can trust,” she said.
In light of everything that has happened, can anyone unequivocally say that she’s wrong?