OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – City officials have agreed to relinquish broad power over the embattled Oakland Police Department to a court-appointed director to avert what would be an unprecedented federal takeover.
As part of a tentative deal announced Wednesday, the compliance director could seek approval from a judge to fire the police chief.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson could approve the deal at a hearing next week. He demanded last month that the parties reach some sort of agreement now that a decade has passed since a federal judge ordered reforms to settle a police brutality lawsuit.
The agreement allows the department to avoid the “stigma” of being under federal receivership, said attorney John Burris, who has been overseeing the brutality lawsuit settlement with fellow lawyer Jim Chanin.
However, Burris said the department will still be under some federal control.
“It is a good proposal and it has some teeth to it,” he said. “We really wanted to have someone in place outside of the city with the authority to remove the chief and or his command staff. … It speaks to the accountability of the Police Department and its officers.”
Police Chief Howard Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan told reporters Wednesday that they also were pleased with the deal and believe it moves the department forward.
Last month, attorneys for Oakland asked the judge to allow the city to appoint an onsite compliance director.
“I think everyone at that table wants OPD to be at the forefront in terms of leading constitutional policing and building and supporting and maintaining public trust,” Jordan said.
Quan added, “This is something that we want. Oakland has a stake in making sure that the community trusts the department.”
Oakland’s deal is close to being a receivership, which would have given federal officials full control of the department, said Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University. However, under the agreement, the city will have a say in choosing a compliance director.
“It’s a subtle kind of arrangement as a compliance officer is a shade below under the strict control of a federal receiver, but it still allows the judge to monitor things,” said Weisberg, director of Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center. “It appeared that the possibility of receivership caused both parties to finally realize that they had to find some common ground after all of these years.”
The compliance director would be required to get the Police Department to complete its reforms by the end of 2013.
Burris said a critical step will be selecting a director, “preferably a former police chief who has worked in a major department and has excellent knowledge of law enforcement and good communication skills.”
Jordan told reporters the city is in the process of identifying potential compliance directors.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, said Oakland was long overdue for a solution.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it had to come to this point,” Wexler said Thursday. He added, however, that a third party might help resolve the problems.
Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said the near 11th-hour deal finally removes some uncertainty surrounding the beleaguered department. He noted that the department has 200 fewer officers than four years ago and is battling a violent crime rate that is up more than 23 percent from last year.
“This deals gives us some leadership in our city that is certainly needed,” Donelan said. “The crime rate is souring, our officers are overworked, and we welcome someone who can help us get into compliance.”
The 2003 lawsuit was filed amid claims that several rogue officers beat or framed drug suspects in 2000. The claims resulted in nearly $11 million in payments to 119 plaintiffs and attorneys.
The settlement initially called for the reforms to be completed within five years. But Burris and Chanin said high-ranking city officials have thwarted those efforts, and the lawyers asked the judge in October to place the department under federal control.
A frustrated Judge Henderson said in January that he was “in disbelief” that the Oakland police had failed to adopt the reforms and threatened federal takeover of the agency.
A federal monitor appointed to the case repeatedly reported that the department was stalling on completing key tasks, including tracking problem officers and reporting the use of force.
However, Jordan and Quan have insisted the department is making progress with the reforms. City attorneys said 10 of 51 assigned tasks were left to complete.
If Henderson approves the deal, he would hold a status conference about six months after a compliance director is chosen. If he doesn’t see any acceptable progress, he could issue several orders including receivership.
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