In the wake of an embarrassing incident in which Alameda police officers arrested a black man for dancing or exercising in the street, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri announced his retirement on Wednesday. Rolleri notified the Alameda City Council of his decision via a letter on Tuesday evening.
Rolleri was elevated to police chief in 2013, following the retirement of Michael Noonan. An Alameda native, Rolleri served on the force for 28 years. His retirement is effective Aug. 28.
During his tenure, crime rates remained relatively low in Alameda. Rolleri initiated the use of technology in policing on the island. He led the push for license-plate readers and officer body-cameras.
In recent years, however, Rolleri became ensnared in political squabbles with members of the council and was a central figure in the high-profile City Hall scandal involving then-city manager Jill Keimach and allegations that two councilmembers violated a City Charter provision involving political interference.
Rolleri was the prime source of an allegation that Councilmember Jim Oddie indicated to him that Keimach’s job would be in danger if she did not select a candidate for fire chief that was backed by the local firefighters union. Councilmember Malia Vella was also named separately for allegedly pressuring Keimach. The City Charter prohibits councilmembers from interfering in the city manager’s duties.
Oddie and Vella were admonished by an Alameda County civil grand jury, but both remain on the City Council. Each is up for re-election this fall. Keimach left with a nearly $1 million settlement. She now serves as a city manager in Arizona. Rolleri also clashed often with former Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer.
But it was the May 23 incident involving Alameda police officers who arrested Mali Watkins, a Black man and Alameda resident, for practicing martial arts choreography in the street that may have been Rolleri’s undoing.
Video of the arrest eventually went viral, angering Alameda residents during a moment when widespread protests were raging across the East Bay and the nation following the death of George Floyd.
In the time frame between the actual incident and dissemination of the viral video, Councilmember Vella suggested that Rolleri had misled the current city manager about the basic facts and severity of the arrest.
Rolleri reportedly described the incident as a training issue involving a young Alameda police officer. As the video and subsequent police body-camera video showed, four officers were eventually involved in Watkins’ arrest, and a few of the officers were identified as veterans of the force.
Following the controversy, Rolleri moved to drastically reduce the types of calls Alameda police officers would respond to, but did so without input from the city manager and city council.
An independent investigation into the Watkins arrest is currently underway. Last week, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley declined to press charges against Watkins for resisting arrest and admonished the two police officers involved. O’Malley determined the officers did not follow protocols for engaging and detaining individuals.
Rolleri, though, may have been one of the most politically progressive police chiefs in the East Bay, and a departure from the traditionally staid and emotionally-distant law-and-order police chief.
He issued support for a number of progressive items approved by the Alameda City Council in recent years, including a move in 2017 to become a sanctuary city. He also supported a bid to bolster gun control rules on the island.
Rolleri also relented on a bid for mounted license-plate readers after news reports detailed the vendor negotiating with the city was alleged to have ties with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement jurisdictions.