Oakland’s Latest Mess

Allegations made by City Administrator Deanna Santana against OPD monitor Robert Warshaw have threatened the integrity of police oversight.

The troubling saga of the Oakland Police Department took an ugly turn last week with the news that City Administrator Deanna Santana has accused Robert Warshaw, the independent court monitor overseeing OPD, of making inappropriate advances toward her earlier this year. The revelation has already threatened the integrity of the oversight process of OPD and could delay a decision on whether the department should be put in federal receivership. In short, it’s a big mess.

A recap: The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting anonymous sources, was the first to report that Santana had made the explosive allegations against Warshaw. The Oakland Tribune, also citing anonymous sources, then confirmed the Chron‘s story. Sources also confirmed to the Express that both the Chron and Trib stories were accurate.

The Oakland City Attorney’s Office said that it has launched an investigation into Santana’s complaint. And attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin, who are also involved in monitoring OPD, are now demanding an investigation into who leaked Santana’s allegations to the press. They note that the timing of the allegations is suspicious because Warshaw and his team are also close to releasing new progress reports on the department, and, so far, he has been highly critical of OPD and its failure to implement the reforms it agreed to make.

Santana’s allegations, meanwhile, may never be provable because sources say that the alleged incidents occurred in private, and that no one else witnessed them, according to the city administrator. Moreover, there’s no evidence at this point that Warshaw has made inappropriate advances to any other public officials in Oakland during his tenure monitoring OPD. In other words, this may become a classic she-said-he-said.

Unfortunately, because of the circumstances, there’s also reason to doubt what both Santana and Warshaw have said and will say. Warshaw’s reputation and career, after all, are on the line. And Santana’s career and reputation would take a hit if, under her watch, OPD were to become the first police department in the nation placed in federal receivership.

Some City Hall insiders and observers suspect that the Oakland police union was the first to leak Santana’s allegations. The union, after all, has long resisted the consent-decree reforms, and casting a shadow over Warshaw’s reputation could delay a decision about receivership by US District Court Thelton Henderson.

It should be noted, however, that it was a mistake by the Oakland City Attorney’s Office that appears to have been partially responsible for the leak. Last Friday, the City Attorney’s Office filed a public declaration with Henderson, announcing that it was launching an investigation into allegations about the court monitor and city officials, and that it planned to file future updates about the incident under seal to keep it private. By Monday, the City Attorney’s Office realized that it should have just filed the original declaration under seal — as it is allowed to do.

However, it should be noted that these types of allegations tend to become public eventually. And so the City Attorney’s Office’s mistake, while unfortunate, may have just precipitated an earlier disclosure of Santana’s allegations than would have otherwise occurred.

Regardless, the fact that they are public now is extremely problematic for the police oversight process. If Warshaw produces any more monitoring reports that are critical of OPD, Police Chief Howard Jordan, or Santana, then some people are going to doubt their veracity. Is Warshaw merely being critical because Santana spurned him? Or because she lied about him? Similarly, if he says OPD has made lots of progress with its reforms, people may wonder whether he’s trying to defuse the situation.

Unfortunately, the only way to minimize such doubts may be for Judge Henderson to publicly order Warshaw to not have any more contact with Santana. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem — the court monitoring team includes a half-dozen other members. Warshaw, from here on out, should also take a more limited role in writing the monitor reports.

Clearly, if Warshaw did not do what Santana’s contends, or if she misunderstood his actions, then forcing him to take a lesser role is unfair — as is the damage already inflicted on his reputation. But at this point, having him step back may be the only way to save the integrity of the process.

Billboards Mishandled

Earlier this summer, the Oakland City Council quietly green-lighted five new billboards to be erected near the foot of the Bay Bridge, including two to three giant LED billboards that will light up the night sky. The council approved the billboards as part of the massive Oakland Army Base development project. The large signs will help finance the expensive project and are expected to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a proposed job-training center in West Oakland. Councilmembers, however, mishandled the billboard approval process because they did not adequately inform residents about the new signs and they should have offered them more of an opportunity to comment on them.

Based on past experience, the council knows full well that billboards stir lots of controversy in Oakland. Opponents of billboards contend that they blight the city, and many people especially don’t like the bright LED signs. In fact, there was a considerable backlash when the council approved the first LED billboard in Oakland last decade near the same spot — a billboard of which some of the proceeds benefit Jerry Brown‘s Oakland School of the Arts.

Because of that past controversy, the council and city administration should have made a greater effort to get the word out about the new billboards before they voted on the Army Base project in June. That way, both billboard opponents and proponents of the planned job-training center could have had sufficient opportunity to express their thoughts — and would have had ample opportunity to convince councilmembers to see their points of view.

Instead, some billboard critics now believe that they were hoodwinked — that the council purposely kept the billboard deal quiet, buried among the hundreds of pages of documents related to the extremely complex Army Base project, in the hope that no one would notice. That belief may or may not be true, but in reality, it doesn’t matter, because by not giving the billboard deal a full and fair hearing, the council and city administration have further undermined the public’s trust.


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