Oakland Can’t Punish Bad Cops

An arbitrator's surprising ruling last week ordering the city to rehire a disgraced officer was, in fact, no surprise at all.

It seemed like a slam-dunk case. Oakland police brass decided to fire Officer Robert Roche for lobbing a tear gas grenade at a group of people who were trying to rescue Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen after he had been shot in the head by another Oakland cop during an Occupy protest on October 25, 2011. Roche’s actions were captured on video (as first reported by the Express). They were abhorrent and his termination was completely justified.

An independent consultant hired by the city agreed. In 2012, Thomas Frazier concluded that Roche’s account of the Olsen incident was simply “not believable.” Roche had claimed that he had not seen the bloody Olsen lying on the street, just a few steps away from him. Roche also claimed he didn’t see the group of protesters who had rushed in to help Olsen a few seconds later.

Roche’s actions that night and his preposterous account of what happened were also emblematic of everything that has been wrong with OPD over the years: This is a department that shoots first and ask questions later, maintains a casual disregard for the civil rights and safety of people it does not like, and routinely engages in cover-ups. Roche, himself, had previously killed three people in the line of duty, and yet was still on the force. On the night of October 25, 2011, the rest of the world got a glimpse of this darker side of the OPD — of Roche and other cops in riot gear firing tear gas canisters at protesters, and of the gravely injured Olsen lying on the ground.

It was a very public black eye for the city. OPD commanders then attempted to ease the collective pain by firing Roche.

But then last week, an arbitrator issued a shocking decision: David Stiteler ruled that the firing of Roche was unjustified, and ordered OPD to reinstate the officer — with back pay. Stiteler’s exact reasons for deciding in Roche’s favor are not clear, because the city is refusing to release the ruling, contending that it’s a personnel issue. But Roche’s attorney told reporters that his client was exonerated because he was only following orders.

In truth, Stiteler’s decision was not shocking at all. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to punish or fire an Oakland cop for misconduct. According to the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, arbitrators have revoked the punishments of officers in seven disciplinary cases in the last two years, and reduced the punishments in five others, the Oakland Tribune reported. Of the last fifteen arbitration cases involving Oakland cops, the city only prevailed in three of them.

Historically, OPD’s miserable record of investigating police misconduct cases has been one of the primary reasons why the city has repeatedly lost in arbitration. The department has consistently failed to assemble strong cases against officers, backed up by solid evidence, thereby putting the city’s attorneys at a severe disadvantage.

Another major problem has been that OPD commanders are rarely, if ever, held accountable when lower-level officers engage in wrongdoing. In the Roche case, for example, then-Captain Paul Figueroa was recorded on a police dispatch tape, ordering officers to “deploy gas into the front of the crowd” of Occupy protesters, as the Express first reported. Eighteen seconds later, an Oakland cop fired a beanbag round at Olsen’s head, inflicting permanent brain damage. Roche then tossed the tear gas grenade at Olsen’s rescuers.

The investigation, however, was hamstrung before it ever began. Figueroa had no business being in command that night; at the time, he was in charge of internal affairs, which would be tasked with investigating the incident. It was an extraordinary conflict of interest and it helped ensure that officers would never be punished. Indeed, the identity of the cop who actually shot Olsen has never been disclosed. Moreover, as Frazier noted in his 2012 report, Roche and other officers involved in the case appeared to coordinate their stories — all submitted remarkably similar accounts of what went down that night.

Although he was in charge, Figueroa was not held accountable for what happened. Instead, new Police Chief Sean Whent promoted Figueroa to assistant chief last year, making him the second highest-ranking officer on the force. Granted, Figueroa is not a bad cop; in fact, he has many fine qualities. But Whent’s decision to promote him after his role in the Olsen incident reinforced the wrong message: that Oakland cops can’t be punished.

Schaaf Leads Money Race

Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf easily outdistanced her mayoral rivals in campaign fundraising during the first half of 2014, raking in $226,955, according to campaign statements filed last week. Excluding personal loans and donations that the candidates made to their own campaigns, Mayor Jean Quan finished a distant second to Schaaf with $89,566 in contributions, followed by City Auditor Courtney Ruby with $84,132.

When including personal loans and donations that the candidates made to their own campaigns, civil rights attorney Dan Siegel posted a fundraising total of $144,328 for this year (he loaned his campaign $100,000). Ruby’s total was $103,060 (including an $18,000 personal loan), followed by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan with $101,470 (including $60,000 in donations from herself) and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker with $92,765 ($30,000 personal loan).

Minimum Wage

And, finally, the Oakland City Council made the right decision last week when it rejected a watered-down minimum wage proposal backed by the chamber of commerce. The chamber’s proposal, which was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Pat Kernighan and Lynette Gibson McElhaney, included numerous exemptions that would have barred many low-wage workers from receiving higher pay and was designed to undermine the Lift Up Oakland ballot measure, which seeks to increase the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour for all workers next year.


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