Putting Citizens in Charge of Police Complaints

A proposal to have the Citizens Police Review Board process complaints against OPD officers — blocked in 2013 by a federal court appointee — is back on the council’s agenda.

In September 2013, Mills College student Kendall Anderson reported to her school and Highland Hospital that she had been raped on campus by an acquaintance. She was told that an Oakland police officer would contact her to investigate the alleged crime, but according to Anderson, the officer never called. Anderson then contacted an OPD detective to ask about her case, and at that point a second traumatic experience began. In an essay published on Salon.com, Anderson wrote that during an in-person interview resembling an interrogation, held at OPD’s offices, “the detective began asking me about my virginity, my clothing choice and how strongly I resisted.” According to Anderson, “during subsequent telephone conversations with the detective, he suggested that I was perhaps mistaking rough sex for rape. He advised me that, ‘some men will just want to have sex with you and never talk to you again.'”

Anderson called the detective’s handling of her case a “traumatic and counterproductive process.” And she didn’t know where she could go for help, not only for an investigation of the rape, but also for an investigation of the Oakland police detective’s misconduct.

“I didn’t know I had a right to file a complaint against the investigator until someone else told me,” Anderson said in an interview. She ended up attending one of then-Councilmember Libby’s Schaaf’s community office hours held at the World Ground Cafe in the Laurel District. “This was … right before she was inaugurated as mayor, but I wanted to let her know what happened to me, so that as mayor she could try to make changes in the police department.” Schaaf listened to Anderson’s story and referred her to the Oakland Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB).

“It was a more sympathetic environment than the police department,” said Anderson about the CPRB. “I was extremely nervous because I had such bad experiences with the police, but the people I interacted with at the CPRB were very appropriate and willing to listen.”

Anderson’s complaint is now one of 65 active cases before the CPRB, the panel established by the Oakland City Council in 1980 in an effort to provide the public with an independent authority to hear, investigate, and recommend discipline in cases of police misconduct.

But ever since the CPRB was established, successive Oakland city councils, pushed by community activists, have struggled with OPD and the Oakland police union to strengthen the CPRB. One of the main obstacles is precisely what Anderson experienced. She didn’t know that she had the right to take her complaint to the CPRB — indeed she didn’t even know it existed.

Part of the problem is that Oakland allows people to file complaints either with the CPRB, or with the Oakland Police Department, sowing confusion and mistrust, and very likely reducing the number of complaints filed.

“Some of the officers who were doing the intake of complaints handled by the police department were really trying to dissuade people, like they didn’t have a complaint,” said PUEBLO activist Gwen Hardy about the situation in the 1980s and 1990s when she was campaigning to create and strengthen the CPRB. “We were to a degree, at the time, the only organization that was actually taking complaints,” said Hardy. PUEBLO even created a database of complaints in an effort to track officer misconduct in the pre-CPRB era.

“Even after CPRB was set up, most people weren’t familiar with it,” said Hardy. “But at the same time they would be reluctant to go to Internal Affairs [within OPD] to file because, it really came down to, ‘Why would I file a complaint in your building with one of your officers against another one or two of your officers?'”

Rashidah Grinage, who was the executive director of PUEBLO until December of last year, worked alongside Hardy to create the CPRB. “We did a joint study with the ACLU in the late 1990s,” Grinage said. “It was kind of a sting operation, because we had students from UC Berkeley trying to file complaints over the phone with OPD to see what reactions they would get. A lot of responses from Internal Affairs were less than helpful, and in some cases they were definitely trying to dissuade the person from making a complaint.”

After Oakland’s CPRB was established, one of the biggest obstacles to its effectiveness was that it was overshadowed by OPD’s Internal Affairs. Having two offices advertising themselves as the place to lodge complaints against officers creates confusion and erodes trust in the process, say Grinage and Hardy. A joint city-PUEBLO survey conducted in 2005 showed that 54 percent of Oaklanders didn’t know the CPRB existed. “So the idea we all came up with as that if we close IA’s ability to take complaints from the public, and people had to go to CPRB to file complaint, that would allow more people in Oakland to find out that they don’t have to go to the police to file a complaint about the police,” said Grinage.

This very idea was approved by the city council in 2013 with a budget of $1.4 million to help staff up the CPRB. But then-City Administrator Deanna Santana delayed implementing CPRB’s role as the new central complaint intake office, and in a surprising about-face, OPD’s court-appointed compliance director, Thomas Frazier, nixed the proposal (see “Frazier Blocks Police Reforms,” 9/18/2013). Frazier said he believed it would potentially interfere with OPD’s court-ordered reforms. It’s not clear why Frazier quashed the idea, or why Santana delayed it for so long, but many suspect that the Oakland police union demanded that the CPRB not be given this authority.

However, the Oakland City Council appears to be poised to finally fix this problem. Last week, the Public Safety Committee voted to reaffirm the 2013 decision to centralize complaint intake with the CPRB. The full council is expected to vote on the measure later this month.

“Deanna’s gone and so is Tom Frazier,” said Councilmember Desley Brooks. “That was the problem last time.” Brooks said she expects the proposal will pass the full council easily. “The good news is that we will be able to free up some officers from being involved in the initial intake process,” said Brooks. “It takes away a system that’s duplicating itself.”

“It’s a citizens police review board and that’s where citizens need to file their complaints,” said Noel Gallo. “I respect the police union, but what’s best for their members isn’t always the best thing for the City of Oakland, and the citizens are asking for greater accountability and for their voices to be heard.”

Oakland recently hired Anthony Finnell, a former Indiana police officer and supervising investigator for the Independent Police Review Authority in Chicago, to lead the CPRB. Finnell said his office is hiring several more staffers in anticipation of the agency’s new responsibilities. “In the long run, it’ll benefit the community and alleviate a lot of confusion,” said Finnell, who added that the CPRB is planning an outreach campaign to let more people know about their rights, and how to initiate a CPRB investigation of a police officer.

Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa said that OPD is not opposed to having CPRB take over the complaint intake process, but that the department will still need two intake technicians to handle the complaints it receives. “We’re still going to take a fair number of complaints in the field, so not having a front door here [a complaint intake office at OPD headquarters] doesn’t mean we won’t stop processing complaints,” said Figueroa.

OPD received approximately 507 complaints in the field last year, and that the department’s rules, crafted under oversight of the federal court, require officers to relay these complaints to Internal Affairs. Field complaints were approximately 48 percent of all complaints received by OPD in 2014, and the department expects to keep receiving complaints this way after CPRB becomes the centralized complaint intake office.

“I’ve talked to Chief [Sean] Whent about this,” said Finnell. “He and I have thought through some of the concerns that may arise, and we’ve been able to address these.” Asked whether the CPRB-complaint-intake proposal could get derailed again like it was in 2013, Finnell said “anything’s possible.” But he added that he thinks it’s a done deal. “I haven’t really had conversations with the police union, so I don’t know where they stand with it.” Representatives of the Oakland Police Officers Association didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

For Anderson and the 65 other cases already on the CPRB’s docket, centralizing complaint intake will make no difference. But it could make the difference in whether or not future cases of alleged police misconduct are ever brought to the attention of officials and the public.

Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly stated that Oakland’s CPRB was established in 1994. The CPRB was established in 1980. Also, the original version of this story stated that Rashidah Grinage is the executive director of PUEBLO. Grinage stepped down as the executive director of PUEBLO in December, 2014.


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