Oakland Police Face New Scrutiny on Use of Force
KQED's CY MUSIKER: Critics of the Oakland police department will soon ask federal judge Thelton Henderson to appoint an independent receiver to take over the department.
If that happens, it will be because Henderson determines the department and Oakland city officials have failed to reform police operations in the wake of the Riders scandal of ten years ago. In that case police officers were accused of planting evidence and beating up suspects.
Yesterday, the monitor appointed by Henderson delivered an update on department reforms that criticized the way police used force in nine recent officer-involved shootings.
John Burris is an attorney in Oakland. He represents plaintiffs in the court settlement of the Riders case and other civil cases against local police.
Mr. Burris, the court monitor wrote that police sometimes shoot at suspects even when there's no immediate threat. What do you make of that report?
JOHN BURRIS: I often have been involved in cases where I had real concerns that the police shooting of a person was very questionable and certainly did not justify the use of force that was done at the time. Often in these cases we have this sense that there was this predetermined mental state to fire a deadly weapon when it was unesccessary. So, this report is in line with my thinking and the conduct I have seen through the years.
MUSIKER: The monitor said officers may be shooting first because they're hypersensitive to the dangers of the job. And this is an understaffed police force in a city with 94 homicides this year -- there were five in a day-and-a-half period earlier this week. So why shouldn't police be very wary of what a suspect might do?
BURRIS: I think police officers need to do what is necessary in order to be safe. I think that from a constitutional point of view and the rights police officers have, they should take precautionary measures. But they do not have the right to subjectively use deadly force and to prejudge or predetermine that deadly force is going to be used, because once you draw your weapon under circumstances, and if you just automatically believe a person is going to have a weapon just because you're in Oakland, then you're more inclined to shoot first and ask questions and try to justify it later. And that's our concern -- is that many of these police shootings did not have to occur.
MUSIKER: As the attorney for the plaintiffs in the Riders case, you're scheduled to file papers tomorrow with judge Henderson on whether he should take over the department. What are you going to say?
BURRIS: We've been involved in this process since 2003. There have been ample opportunities for the city to come into compliance. There have been several mayors. There have been several police chiefs. And our concern is that, despite all of this, and having two independent monitors, each of whom have experienced police officers, each of whom have concluded that the police department is not in compliance and not doing a very good job in getting into compliance, would suggest to us that the approach we have followed for the last nine years has not worked, and therefore a new paradigm needs to be put in place.
So, our concern now is, if it hasn't worked, what should be the new order of the day? Obviously, the receivership is a concern that the court has expressed. We've sort of indicated that what has taken place so far hasn't worked, and maybe a receivership, or someone like a receiver should be placed in charge of various aspects of the department. I don't think we have a view that the entire department should be placed under receivership. Our concern really is about those areas that go to the use of force, go to racial profiling, go to monitoring of police officer conduct. I think we have to look at what portions have not been brought into compliance and why, and then whether or not another approach should be put in place in order to see if there's a possibility of getting that done.
MUSIKER: Have you seen any improvements in the past decade?
BURRIS: Certainly. We've had a number of tests in areas of reform that we put in place, and many of those have been brought into compliance. But in the core issues that are important -- racial profiling, the use of force, the pointing of the weapon, the number of shootings, internal affairs results -- those have not changed in a significant way that makes us feel good about the changes we tried to put in place.
MUSIKER: Thanks so much for talking to us.
BURRIS: Thank you.
MUSIKER: John Burris is an attorney in Oakland.