Last year, when US District Court Judge Thelton Henderson appointed Thomas Frazier to jumpstart the Oakland Police Department’s stalled efforts to implement federally mandated reforms, it looked like an inspired move. Frazier, a former Baltimore police commissioner, had displayed independence and honesty when he issued a scathing report on OPD’s heavy-handed response to Occupy Oakland and then resisted attempts by City Administrator Deanna Santana to soft-pedal his findings. And as OPD’s compliance director, Frazier helped the department make progress on its reform efforts. But over the past few months, he seemed to lose interest in the job, as OPD took a step backward, according to its latest court-monitoring report. Frazier also made a surprising decision to support the Oakland police union in its ongoing campaign to block civilian oversight of the department. And so last week, Henderson fired Frazier and installed longtime Independent Court Monitor Robert Warshaw to take his place.
From what we know of Warshaw, a former police chief in Rochester, New York, he appears to be a significant upgrade over Frazier. Since Henderson appointed Warshaw four years ago to monitor OPD’s compliance with the federal consent decree, Warshaw has repeatedly produced damning reports on the department, revealing that officers still engage in racial profiling and abuse suspects. In short, Warshaw is a hard-ass, and he’s exactly what OPD needs to clean house and finally be able to emerge from federal oversight.
In fact, it’s telling that ex-Police Chief Howard Jordan told the Oakland Tribune late last week that he thinks that Warshaw’s appointment is “terrible.” Jordan claimed that Warshaw has “personal vendettas” against certain members of OPD. It should be noted that Jordan abruptly quit last year after Warshaw released a series of highly critical reports on OPD and its failures under Jordan’s command.
The Oakland police union, which has claimed over the years that federal reforms inhibit officers from being tough on crime, isn’t cheering about Warshaw either. Warshaw is expected to institute strict standards at OPD and fire commanders who refuse to hold rogue cops accountable for violating the law.
The irony for OPD and city officials is that the reason Warshaw now has the job is that they had lobbied the judge to hire him as court monitor in 2010. Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney representing numerous city residents who had sued OPD over police misconduct stemming from The Riders scandal, said he was reluctant back then to go along with what the city wanted, because he was concerned Warshaw might be biased toward police, considering his extensive background as a law enforcement official and the fact that his monitoring team was full of former cops. But after checking out Warshaw’s oversight work in other police departments, Chanin came to the conclusion that Warshaw would be honest about Oakland’s shortcomings. He was right.
When asked about whether he thinks Warshaw has personal vendettas against members of OPD — a charge never leveled at Warshaw in other cities in which he has worked — Chanin replied, “No. I don’t …. Maybe a personal vendetta in that [OPD officials] don’t listen to what he says.”
Jordan also told the Trib that there will be a “mass exodus” from OPD because of Warshaw. Only time will tell if he’s right, but if he is, then that could be a good thing — if the people exiting are the old guard of entrenched officers and their commanders who have steadfastly refused to abide by the federal reforms.
The existence of this old guard — along with the law-and-order politicians and pundits in the city who support and defend them — is the primary reason why Oakland is still in federal oversight eleven years after The Riders case ended. And if the members of this old guard leave, then the new officers in the department who want OPD to become a modern, progressive police force may decide to stay, which would also be a good thing. Last month, the Express reported on this split between the old and new guards, which surfaced in a survey of police officers’ attitudes last fall (see “Oakland Cops Think City Is Too Liberal,” 1/29).
It’s hard to know why Frazier soured on the job — he, like Warshaw, has declined to talk to journalists — but some police observers think that he grew close to members of the police union, the Oakland Police Officers’ Association (OPOA), and may have adopted their view that the federal reforms should not be a top priority. Rashidah Grinage, executive director of the police watchdog group PUEBLO, said she was surprised when Frazier sided with the OPOA and chose to overrule a city council decision to require that civilians be in charge of receiving complaints about police misconduct. Critics of the department have long maintained that Oakland police discourage people from reporting wrongdoing. But OPOA contended that civilian involvement would prompt cops to leave the department — an argument that Frazier adopted. “It seemed clear that Frazier drank the OPOA Kool-Aid,” Grinage said.
As for Warshaw, Chanin and Grinage think he offers the best hope of finally reforming the department. In fact, Chanin said he and fellow civil rights attorney John Burris had pushed two years ago to give Warshaw more authority over OPD — before Henderson decided to award that authority to Frazier. Grinage thinks the judge has now finally gotten it right.
“Warshaw is very clear-headed,” Grinage said, adding that she is convinced he fully understands the department’s numerous problems and the difficulty of his job. “He has said that this is the most intractable [group of officers] he has ever had to deal with. … They’re the most resistant to change.”