San Francisco Chronicle

Oakland police reinforce inept, corrupt reputation

- JUSTIN PHILLIPS San Francisco Chronicle columnist Justin Phillips appears Sundays. Email: jphillips@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @JustMrPhil­lips

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?

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