Courts and activists demand changes from Oakland police


December 5, 2012


photo courtesy of Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

December 14, 2012

In California, a federal judge has ruled that the Oakland police department will not be the first in the nation to be put under federal receivership. Instead, a court-appointed “compliance director” will oversee Oakland’s police department for a minimum of one year, or until the department implements reforms meant to correct and prevent abuses of power.

The decision comes after more than a decade of foot-dragging by the Oakland police department following the landmark Oakland “Riders” case, which exposed widespread corruption and complicity in the department, police watchdog groups say.

From Oakland, FSRN’s Puck Lo has the story.


The city of Oakland has avoided an embarrassing federal takeover of its police department – for now. But if reforms are not implemented in a year, a federal court could still decide to impose receivership. It’s the latest development in a turbulent twelve-year case.

In 2000, more than one hundred people testified that they were victims of police brutality and had been set up by four corrupt cops, known as the Oakland “Rough Riders.”

Civil rights lawyer John Burris filed a class action suit against the police over the Riders incidents.

Burris: There had been a message communicated to them that you get crime down in the community, and we don’t care how you do it. And so it was a blind eye turned toward their activities. And the worst part of that whole deal, once it was uncovered, not one supervisor or command person was ever held accountable. 

In 2003, the city settled by paying out more than $10 million to 119 plaintiffs. It also agreed to make 51 key reforms, 10 of which remain unfulfilled. That’s what led federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who was overseeing the Riders case, to threaten the city with a federal takeover of the police department.

Last week Judge Henderson ordered Oakland’s mayor and police chief to meet. Both parties conceded that the city could hire a court-appointed “compliance director” who would implement the long overdue changes. On Wednesday Henderson approved the agreement. It’s not a receivership in name, but the effect is similar, according to Burris. He drafted the proposal.

Burris: It’s a de facto receivership from our perspective. Meaning that person who is selected to be the compliance director will, like a receiver, report directly to the judge and would have the responsibility of directing the department though his or her own evaluations, development of new policies and procedures that are designed to get the department into compliance within the next year.

In the years since the Riders scandal, Oakland has remained plagued by police misconduct. Eight out of a total of nine men shot by Oakland police during the last two and a half years were Black, including 37-year-old Derrick Jones who was shot and killed near his barber shop in 2010. The year before 22-year-old Oscar Grant the Third was shot and killed by a BART police officer.

Another controversial case involves the killing of 18-year-old Alan Blueford last May. Blueford’s friends, who were present at the scene, say that Oakland police officer Miguel Masso chased and shot Blueford. They said Blueford was unarmed. Officer Masso said that Blueford threatened him with a gun. Blueford’s father, Adam, say the incident was tragic, but not a surprise.

Blueford: The community in Oakland, where I was born and raised, more or less has no trust for the police department and their brutality. They feel like it’s ongoing and the department – this is what they do and they’re going to say it’s justified, this is normal procedure.

Blueford says Officer Masso violated several procedures on the day he shot Alan.

Blueford: The initial stop was never called in. That’s against policy. The chase – when he chased my son a half mile – he never called the chase in. And he had his lapel camera on… it was off at the time of my son’s murder.

Some of those procedures were reforms mandated by the Riders settlement. But years later, violations like these are still typical, Burris says.

Burris: We had a search warrant case where over 100 people illegally had their houses entered into and some of them arrested. That came after this agreement was signed. We had a case where the officers had covered up a beating of a man, and for a number of years had gone undetected. We also had another major case where the police officers were in fact pulling down the pants and examining the private parts of African American men out on the street. So we had this agreement that was in effect that everybody’s working to get into compliance, but the real impact of it is when a crisis develops the police officers reverted to the conduct that they engaged in beforehand.

It’s difficult to tell if things are getting worse overall, Burris says, because Oakland’s police department has failed to keep comprehensive records of officer conduct and the demographic data of people stopped for questioning. Also, the department often characterizes citizen complaints as “unfounded,” which means it won’t be included in an officer’s record and makes it difficult to document possible patterns of misconduct.

The city and police did not return FSRN’s requests for interviews, but last May Deputy Captain Sean Whent told FSRN the department was making progress in reaching compliance on needed reforms.

Burris is cautiously optimistic that instituting a compliance director – who will have the power to fire the Police Chief and other command staff – could change the department’s internal culture of impunity. But some activists, including Oakland-based Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizer, Sanyika Bryant, say government oversight is not enough.

Bryant: They may make a reform toward constitutional policing. It’s a small reform… I think that if the OPD say – was at the same level of compliance as the Chicago police department, or the Houston police department, New York police department – folks on the street aren’t going to see much difference.

Bryant has been door-knocking in East and West Oakland to invite people to neighborbood “tribunals” – large meetings where people, including some who have experienced police violence, document their stories and come up with ideas about how to effect change. More than 200 people came to the last two-day tribunal in Oakland during February last year.

Bryant: Ultimately the police need to be under the control of the people directly. An organized body of community needs to be in control of the hiring and firing of the police. It shouldn’t be like the police review boards that we have now that don’t have any teeth. We need a mechanism that can be punitive to the police that can actually force some changes on them.

Bryant has been brainstorming some new strategies to take the fight against police shootings to the next level.

Bryant: Another thing than can be done is what I want to call grassroots economic sanctions – being able to do things like the Port shutdowns and things like that. But tie them, tie those sorts of activities into the grievances of the people when things like Alan Blueford murder, or Oscar Grant happens over the years. Be able to hit the city economically when something like that happens.

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement works with survivors of police violence, including the Blueford family and their supporters.

Recently Adam Blueford took a trip to the East Coast to spread the word about the injustice of his son’s killing.

Blueford: I’m preparing to go nationwide with this fight for justice. I mean, we can’t bring my son Alan back but what we’re trying to do is have somewhere for citizens to come when they’ve been brutalized and have nowhere else to go.

Blueford wants the police department to fire Officer Masso, and he wants an end to Stop-and-Frisk police practices, which he said is responsible for why his son was initially detained. On his trip Blueford met with political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and people who lost loved ones due to police violence. He’s now in conversation with many of them about his next steps.

Puck Lo, Oakland, California.