Town Business: A Strong or Weak Police Commission?

It’s almost a sure thing that Oakland voters will have the option of creating a civilian police-oversight commission this November. What’s unclear is whether the commission will actually be given meaningful oversight powers, and whether it will be independent of the mayor, city attorney, and city administrator.

Tomorrow night the Oakland City Council will decide what sort of police commission they really want. But it’s been a long road to this point, so for those who haven’t been paying close attention, here’s what happened so far:

Earlier this year, the Coalition for Police Accountability began circulating a petition to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that would establish a police commission. Additionally, their measure would have eliminated arbitration for police discipline matters, removing entirely a system that has been criticized for allowing bad cops to keep their jobs.

The coalition failed to gather enough signatures to put their measure on the ballot, but along the way they gained the support of councilmembers Dan Kalb and Noel Gallo. Furthermore, the Black Lives Matter Movement kept the issue of police accountability on the front burner.

Kalb and Gallo drafted a police commission proposal very similar to the one the Coalition for Police Accountability had unsuccessfully tried to place on the ballot. The original draft of the Kalb-Gallo measure would have eliminated binding arbitration for cops and created a strong police commission with the power to investigate police misconduct, fire the police chief, and shape OPD’s policies. It also would have given the commission significant independence from the mayor, city attorney, and city administrator. The Kalb-Gallo measure initially had iffy prospects of making it onto the ballot without being substantially weakened by the Oakland Police Officers Association and its allies on the city council.

But then broke a scandal that rocked the Oakland Police Department and Bay Area law enforcement. Suicide, sex crimes, and the resignation of three police chiefs at OPD combined with a national uproar over police brutality to create a wave of support in Oakland for the police commission proposal.

Councilmembers Abel Guillen, Annie Campbell Washington, and Larry Reid, who had drafted their own alternative to the Kalb-Gallo measure — seen as friendlier to the police officers union and mayor — suddenly withdrew their legislation.

Even so, Oakland’s city employee unions lined up behind the Oakland Police Officers Association to oppose the removal of binding arbitration for cops. As a result, Kalb and Gallo, without the votes they needed to take arbitration away, struck arbitration reform from their measure. In an attempt to compromise, Kalb and Gallo then wrote a new version that reformed the arbitration process by having a state panel select the arbitrators (rather than the police union and the city, as is the current practice). But the unions, including IFPTE Local 21 and SEIU Local 1021 again went to bat for the cops and had this entire section deleted from the text of the ordinance last week.

The unions also deleted language from the ordinance that would give the police commission subpoena power and access to OPD’s records, including personnel files and internal affairs cases.

Last week reformers pushed back against the unions to have subpoena power and records access put back into the ordinance. Sources now say that IFPTE 21 and SEIU 1021 plan on announcing this week that they are ready to ready to have subpoena power and records access re-inserted in the ordinance, and furthermore that the unions will support the ballot measure — so long as it doesn’t touch arbitration, which they say is an anti-worker proposal that would harm all city employees.

But now members of the Coalition for Police Accountability are saying that they might not campaign for the measure if the council, mayor, city attorney and police union succeed in weakening the police commission in other ways.

Last week the Coalition for Police Accountability’s Rashidah Grinage told the Express that she’s worried about language in the most recent draft of the Kalb-Gallo ordinance that would allow the mayor, city administrator, and city attorney to influence and potentially undermine the commission.

The current draft of the ordinance would have the mayor make three direct appointments to the commission’s seven person board. Last month the Coalition for Police Accountability wrote a letter to the city council saying these three appointees “would immediately be under a cloud of suspicion as surrogate for the mayor,” and that the “integrity” of the commission would be damaged unless all appointments are made by a selection panel of Oakland residents, instead of politicians.

The coalition is also opposing draft language that would give the city administrator and city attorney the power to appoint administrative staff and legal counsel to the commission. 

“This creates a situation where the Commission’s attorney reports directly to the City Attorney rather than the Commission. This undermines both the independence of the Commission and its credibility,” the coalition wrote in their letter to the council.
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