By Ken Epstein
Members of the Oakland Police Commission seek the City Council’s help to overcome obstacles that are keeping the commission from getting off the ground, speaking at Tuesday’s council meeting. Shown (L to R): Commission Vice Chair Ginale Harris, Commissioner Jose Dorado and Commission Chair Regina Jackson. Photo by Ken Epstein
Members and supporters of the voter-created Oakland Police Commission went to City Council this week to seek support to end city administrators’ continuous foot dragging and blocking the commission from doing its job to provide independent oversight of the Oakland Police Department.
Reaffirming the need for an independent police commission, Council President Rebecca Kaplan and a majority of council members voted at Tuesday night’s meeting to require the City Administrator to hire commission staff, including an Inspector General, that are independent of the city administration.
City Attorney Barbara Parker and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, who reports to Mayor Libby Schaaf, are taking the position that the council resolution is illegal, violating the City Charter, and the administration does not have to implement it.
The Police Commission was created in November 2016 by Measure LL, an amendment to the Oakland City Charter that was passed with the backing of 83 percent of the voters. The commission is made up of seven regular and two alternate members, who are all Oakland residents and serve in a volunteer capacity.
“It’s not enough that the community called for this in great, great numbers. But we have been hamstrung in every way possible. Talk about tools, talk about staff, we have none of them,” said Regina Jackson, chair of the commission, speaking at the council meeting.
“The City Administrator didn’t follow the vote or the direction of the City Council. The City Administrator acted as if the vote never happened,” said Jackson.
“The problem is that we’re here to do a job in a volunteer capacity. We’re spending hours upon hours. And everywhere we turn we’re stopped. It’s blatant obstructionism.”
Police Commissioner Edwin Prather asked the council to support the commission so that it could start doing its work, speaking at the April 9 Public Safety Committee meeting, a video of which was played at the council meeting.
“We are behind the eight ball – all the time … Whatever you can do to get us the help we need would be greatly appreciated,” he said.
He said that when he took the position on the commission 16 months ago, “I knew that getting the police department to accept oversight where none previously existed was going to be a difficult thing.
“(But) I don’t think I understood that there were going to be forces in the city that were going to be dilatory and obstructive towards our progress.”
The only position created so far has been an administrative analyst, but that person works in the City Administrator’s office and has been told not to attend Police Commission meetings, according to police commissioners speaking at the council meeting.
The central issue at the meeting was the refusal of City Administrator Landreth and City Attorney Parker to allow the police commission to create a staff job position for an Inspector General who would be supervised by the commission and not by the City Administrator.
Councilmembers voted 5-0 to back a resolution reaffirming a vote last year that required the City Administrator to create the independent Inspector General position that would report to the Police Commission. The resolution was submitted by Councilmembers Kaplan, Noel Gallo and Nikki Fortunato Bas. Also backing the resolution were Councilmembers Sheng Thao and Loren Taylor. Dan Kalb abstained.
“There is no question that Oakland residents value the necessity of having a civilian police commission, and one of the first steps to ensure an effective oversight body meant hiring an Inspector General whose duties including conducting audits, review policing practices and procedures,” said Kaplan.
Over Landreth’s and Parker’s objections, the council last July passed an ordinance requiring all staff hired for the commission to be independent of the city administration. Such independence would be necessary for the commission to avoid undue influence by the Oakland Police Department chain of command, which includes the City Administrator as the supervisor of the Chief of Police, according to council members.
Landreth and Parker have taken the position that the ordinance violates the part of the City Charter, which says all staff are hired and supervised by the City Administrator. Because they view the ordinance as illegal, they argue they do not have to implement it.
According to Karen Getman, an outside attorney brought in by City Attorney Parker to give a legal opinion on the matter, “The City Administrator is not bound by the council’s direction in that regard.”
“The City Administrator gets to make her own decision about whether something is or isn’t consistent with the charter. The council cannot tell her she has to violate the charter,” said Getman.
In a memo that the City Attorney distributed to the council, Getman argued that the councilmembers who supported the resolution in favor of the independent police commission could be criminally charged and face “forfeiture of office upon conviction.”
Underscoring the significance of the conflict between the council and the city administration over creating the Inspector General position, Police Commissioner Prather in his remarks to the Public Safety Committee said:
“This is a power grab, plain and simple…It is very clear that the City Administrator does not want this position to report to the Police Commission.”
Kaplan said she hoped the differences over the City Charter could be worked out in order for police commission to move forward. However, she indicated that the council may have to seek outside legal representation.
Published May 3, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post