OAKLAND — A federal judge has placed Oakland Police Department reform efforts under his direct control, citing nearly a decade of inadequate attempts to comply with a legal settlement in a case that unmasked systemic police brutality and racial profiling.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson on Wednesday signed off on an 11th-hour agreement reached last week between the city and plaintiffs' attorneys under which he will appoint a full-time "compliance director" with sweeping powers to dictate changes related to the case.
That director will have the ability to order expenditures of up to $250,000 without city approval, revamp police policies pertaining to required reforms, demote personnel or order other staffing changes. With Henderson's approval, the director would even be able to fire Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan if progress to revamp the department stalls.
In his order, Henderson said he was "hopeful that the appointment of an independent compliance director …will succeed — where city and OPD leaders have failed" in helping the department achieve compliance and "become more reflective of contemporary standards for professional policing."
Plenty of police departments have faced federal consent decrees and mandated reforms, but this marks the first known instance in recent decades in which a judge has stepped in to take over an agency's key decision-making authority when reforms failed, plaintiffs' attorneys said.
"There have been other consent decrees, but they've been complied with — eventually," said Jim Chanin, one of two attorneys for plaintiffs in the case, who first filed suit in 2000. "I don't look at this as a victory. It's not a happy day. It's not our first choice. But it's a realization that it was never going to happen under the way it was set up."
The case pertained to a group of officers known as "The Riders" who framed and beat suspects in West Oakland. The city paid $10.9 million to 119 plaintiffs in the case, and a settlement agreement was implemented in 2003 that mandated a host of specific reforms to department culture and practice.
The city has complied with a number of them. Years later, however, key changes have not occurred, including an early warning system to detect problem officers, a revamping of the internal affairs division, and the collection and analysis of data to avert racial profiling.
In a joint statement, Jordan, City Administrator Deanna Santana and Mayor Jean Quan applauded Henderson's approval of the settlement and said officials were "re-energized in our efforts to improve public safety while building greater trust between the community and the police department."
The monitoring team — paid for by the city at a cost of about $800,000 a year — will remain in place, and Oakland also will pay the salary of the compliance director, who will begin filing monthly progress reports in May.
If reforms do not proceed at a pace that satisfies Henderson, he retains the right to place the department in receivership.
The change comes at a trying time for the department, which has suffered a dramatic drop in the number of sworn officers and an increase in crime.
Sgt. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Assn., said the appointment of outside leadership answering directly to the court "lifts the uncertainty, which was just another stressor on officers."