San Francisco Chronicle

Oakland police mired in disarray

- By Justin Ray Justin Ray is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has published works for the Los Angeles Times and Columbia Journalism Review.

LeRonne Armstrong is officially no longer Oakland’s top cop.

Mayor Sheng Thao fired Armstrong on Wednesday after an investigat­ion found he mishandled two officer misconduct cases. He is the 12th chief of police to leave the job in the past two decades.

Thao said on social media that while Armstrong has her respect and appreciati­on, she is “no longer confident” that he “can do the work needed to continue much needed reforms.”

Meanwhile, Armstrong said in a statement to The Chronicle: “After the relevant facts are fully evaluated by weighing evidence instead of pulling sound bites from strategica­lly leaked, inaccurate reports, it will be clear I was a loyal and effective reformer of the Oakland Police Department.”

Although Armstrong’s ouster indicates that the city is taking the department’s issues seriously, there are still major questions left unsettled in the scandal. Their answers have the potential to shed more light on how policing went wrong in Oakland.

A lone sergeant was involved in a 2021 hit-and-run in San Francisco that caused around $14,000 in damage, and he was also involved in an incident in which he fired his gun in an elevator at department headquarte­rs, according to a report by an independen­t law firm that investigat­ed the cases. The sergeant has been identified by KTVU and Oaklandsid­e as Sgt. Michael Chung.

The Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division looked into the first incident and Armstrong signed off on giving the sergeant counseling and training. The second incident prompted the city to hire San Francisco-based law firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen to look into both matters. The law firm found that Internal Affairs did not properly discipline the sergeant and “created an environmen­t that allowed that officer to go on to commit far more egregious and dangerous misconduct.”

Armstrong’s actions have been at the center of the turmoil. He told the outside investigat­ors that he failed to review evidence from the incidents before closing the investigat­ions. However, a report released by KTVU claims that investigat­ors found that “implausibl­e.”

In public statements, Armstrong seemingly double-downed on his claim that he wasn’t aware of the case.

“No chief would ever be able to do his or her job if they had to review over 200 sustained findings or cases that we sustained in OPD over a year’s period of

Although Chief LeRonne Armstrong’s ouster indicates that the city is taking the department’s issues seriously, there are still major questions.

time,” he has stated. “If I were to accept the fact that I need to review, then why do I have a chain of command?”

We don’t have informatio­n about the cases he’s hinted at, but we’re left with two choices: Either Armstrong was involved with department chicanery, or he was not scrutinizi­ng every instance of police misconduct. Either reality should be troubling for residents.

His chain of command point leads to the next issue the scandal has raised: The culture of Oakland police.

Before he landed the job, Armstrong told the city’s Police Commission in interviews that he would “make the cultural change needed to increase trust within our community through fair and unbiased treatment.” However, the light punishment dealt in the hit-and-run shows disrespect for traffic laws and the privilege of law enforcemen­t officers. As civil rights attorney Jim Chanin told KTVU about the incident: “What would happen if you or me if we caused $15,000 in damage in the parking lot and drove away? We would be arrested.”

Additional­ly, Oaklandsid­e revealed that during the hit-and-run, Chung was in the car with an officer he was dating, violating a policy that prevents supervisor­s from having romantic relationsh­ips with someone they supervise.

These recent scandals do not inspire trust. The Oakland Police Department has been under federal oversight for the past two decades after a group of men said they were assaulted and falsely arrested on drug charges. Before recent news broke, the department appeared poised to finally leave the arrangemen­t but given the current circumstan­ces, leaving that oversight anytime soon seems unlikely.

Depending on what narrative you believe, either the department wasn’t paying close attention, or it conspired to cover up relatively benign cases. Why risk it all for these cases?

Armstrong has accused the department’s federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, of acting “in the interest of his own pocketbook by manufactur­ing a false crisis to justify extending his lucrative monitoring contract.” It’s hard to find a way to synthesize Armstrong’s statements that would completely absolve him from responsibi­lity in the current turmoil.

Personally, I am disappoint­ed. I talked to Armstrong in 2021 in an extensive interview in which he told me that “after so many years, we’ve created a new culture in this department that I believe really respects law, respects community and understand­s the importance of accountabi­lity.”

After we talked, I felt confident he would be the person to bring about new change. However, the recent scandal indicates that perhaps old habits in police department­s die hard.

 ?? Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle ?? Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao fired police Chief LeRonne Armstrong after a probe found he mishandled misconduct cases.
Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao fired police Chief LeRonne Armstrong after a probe found he mishandled misconduct cases.

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