Over the past decade, the Oakland Police Department has received much of the blame for its repeated failure to enact court-ordered reforms regarding police misconduct. But a hard-hitting report released last week revealed there is another city agency also responsible for why OPD has failed to live up to the reforms: the Oakland City Attorney’s Office. In fact, the report, conducted by court-appointed investigator Edward Swanson, confirmed what the Express uncovered in an in-depth story last year, and serves as a stinging indictment of City Attorney Barbara Parker and her office’s repeated failures to hold bad cops accountable.
Swanson’s report, which was commissioned by federal Judge Thelton Henderson, singles out Parker and the ineptitude of her office as to why the city repeatedly loses arbitration cases involving police officer discipline, and had lost nine straight before Henderson ordered Swanson’s review. According to Swanson’s report, Parker’s office:
• Has repeatedly failed to prepare for police arbitration cases, often waiting until just before a hearing to contact witnesses, and then has failed to prepare witnesses to testify. In one case, a deputy city attorney was so unprepared the only witness she called to the stand was a former police chief whom she thought would testify on the city’s behalf, but who, in fact, testified on behalf of the disciplined cop.
• Has repeatedly waited until the last minute to assign private attorneys to handle police misconduct cases, thereby giving those lawyers no time to prepare for arbitration. By contrast, police officers’ union attorneys typically take months, and sometime years, to get ready for cases.
• Has repeatedly failed to hire experienced private attorneys who are experts in police misconduct cases. In fact, Parker’s system of hiring outside attorneys didn’t even take into account whether lawyers had ever handled police misconduct cases before. In one instance, a firm was recommended for hiring because it had done real estate law for the city. Swanson said witnesses told him that the outside attorneys “had a crippling lack of knowledge about police discipline.”
Since the recession, Parker has repeatedly blamed staffing cuts in her office for why she can’t assign deputy city attorneys to handle all police misconduct cases, and instead must often hire private lawyers. But Swanson pointed out that Parker’s argument does not explain why she routinely waited until the last moment to assign cases to outside attorneys or why she failed to hire lawyers with expertise.
Swanson even called out Parker personally for a letter she wrote to the Express last year, demanding a correction to our cover story, “Why Oakland Can’t Fire Bad Cops,” (9/17). Our story, by investigative journalist Ali Winston, uncovered Parker’s practice of not assigning cases until just before arbitration hearings. In her letter to the editor, Parker claimed that in a case involving the firing of Officer Robert Roche for misconduct, the “timing of the assignment was not a factor in the outcome of the case.”
Swanson called Parker’s claim “alarming” and wrong. He noted that the attorney Parker hired did not review the Roche case until about three weeks before the arbitration hearing, while Roche’s attorneys had been preparing for months. Roche was the cop who lobbed a tear-gas grenade at Occupy Oakland protesters who were trying to help injured Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen. The arbitrator ultimately ruled in Roche’s favor and ordered OPD to rehire him with back pay — a move that shocked many Oakland residents and prompted Judge Henderson’s decision to appoint Swanson. “Having reviewed the transcript of the hearing and having spoken to many individuals involved in the case, we can say categorically that this mismatch in preparation [between the attorney Parker hired and Roche’s lawyers] had an affect on the outcome,” Swanson concluded.
“The issue is not how good a job the union did in defending its members,” civil rights attorney Jim Chanin told the Express, referring to Swanson’s conclusions about police arbitrations cases. “The issue is: Why hasn’t the city done its job?”
In response to Swanson’s report, Parker issued a formal statement: “As City Attorney, I am responsible for the performance of the [Oakland City Attorney’s Office], good or bad, and as we reported to the Court, I have taken steps to address the concerns that we identified regarding the handling of certain police arbitrations.” Parker further stated that her office now seeks out qualified attorneys for police misconduct cases and assigns them well in advance of arbitrations. She also said her office now has a dedicated unit that oversees police misconduct cases.
Swanson credited Parker for making the changes, and noted that, as a result, her office recently won two police arbitration cases. But he also concluded that she would not have instituted the reforms if Judge Henderson had not ordered his report.
And he’s right. Parker’s letter to the Express last September showed that she was in denial about the failures of her office. But more troubling, Swanson’s report proves that her office has helped foster a culture within OPD in which bad cops know that they can get away with just about anything. And for that, she owes the residents of this city an apology.