The Oakland Police Department has been under federal oversight for 13 years. It was a mandate intended to help reform the OPD after the 2000 Riders case in which officers beat and framed Oakland residents.
Now the Police Department is in the middle of a widespread sexual exploitation scandal involving several of its officers. The scandal led to the resignation of three police chiefs over the course of eight days in June 2016. City Administrator Sabrina Landreth is currently in charge of police “administrative and personnel decisions,” while acting Assistant Chief David Downing is in charge of "tactical and operational decisions" until a permanent chief can be found.
The scandals have given backing to Oaklanders who have long advocated for a civilian-led police commission. And now voters will have a chance to weigh in.
Oakland's Measure LL, which would change the city charter and establish citizen oversight of the OPD, is on the November ballot. The new commission would have the ability to hire and fire the police chief, as well as subpoena and discipline officers. Supporters say it would create one of the strongest commissions in the country.
The City Council has given Measure LL its unanimous stamp of approval, and Mayor Libby Schaaf has also expressed support.
“I think the stars and planets are lining up for this type of thing,” says Rockne "Rocky" Lucia, a lawyer with Rains Lucia Stern. He’s been representing police officers, including Oakland officers, for 30 years. He acknowledges that the conversation around policing has swept the country after a number of high-profile killing of black men by officers.
These factors have created a sort of perfect storm of support for the police commission. But it wasn't always that way, according to Rashida Grinage. She's been pushing for civilian oversight for years.
Grinage looks a bit like a sweet grandmother, but she’s proved herself to be a relentless fighter, spurred to action by a terrible tragedy.
“I think it’s the way most activists begin,” she says. Her fight started with a personal loss. “In 1993, I lost my husband and one of my four sons to the Oakland Police Department."
An animal nuisance call ended in a shootout between Grinage’s son and police. Her husband was killed in the crossfire. An OPD officer also died. OPD's investigation found her son opened fire.
But Grinage says she fought for years to try and learn what happened that day. She felt the OPD’s account was lacking, and whatever the details were, she is sure race played a role.
“My husband is African-American, my son obviously mixed. If I had been home to answer the door as a Caucasian, I think things would have ended very differently. I think everyone would still be alive today,” she says.
She says that, at heart, Measure LL is about accountability. Activists like her believe investigations into officer-involved shootings are biased and that officers cover for each other.
It has been hard to get an accurate official count of police shootings across the country. An East Bay Express investigation earlier this year used data from Fatal Encounters, a journalist-run website, to calculate police shootings in Oakland. They found that between 2000 and 2015, local law enforcement killed 90 people in Oakland, 74 percent of whom were black.
Oakland's Police Department has already had a fair amount of scrutiny. After the Riders Case in which officers bribed, framed and set up citizens -- mostly African-Americans -- a civil rights lawsuit led to a federal judge to impose a monitor to watch over the department and ensure that reforms laid out in a negotiated settlement were implemented.
And after a rocky road, it was working, according to police and city officials. Things were getting better.
The city was lauded by the Obama administration as an example of 21st century policing. Oakland police opened themselves up to be studied by MacArthur "genius grant" award winner Jennifer Eberhardt, whose stark report found that officers were more likely to stop, search and handcuff people of color, especially African-American men. Oakland police shared their data with Eberhardt and were open about the results.
That could have been a turning point for the department. Except the week Eberhardt’s research was released, news of the sexual exploitation scandal also broke.
City Councilman Dan Kalb worked with Grinage to draft the legislation for the police commission. He says that 13 years of federal oversight have helped the department, but he believes strong civilian oversight is ultimately needed.
"We need a civilian commission that is going to look at things on a permanent basis, and on a full-time basis," Kalb says.
That's why Kalb and City Councilman Noel Gallo co-sponsored the Police Commission measure. At city council meetings there was wrangling over the amount of power the commission would have and how commissioners would be appointed.
Kalb says the final product was a compromise, but one that didn't sacrifice the ultimate goal of civilian oversight with teeth.
In the final draft, the mayor will be allowed to appoint three of the seven commissioners. Some activists were furious about this, but Kalb says the measure still creates a fundamentally independent body.
In council meetings, the Oakland Police Officer's Association expressed concern about the commission. Particularly worrisome to them was the section that revoked binding arbitration for police officers. Other city unions also balked at that. They feared doing away with binding arbitration for police could create a slippery slope in other employee discipline cases.
Binding arbitration is out, but much of what activists wanted remains in the final plan. The OPOA did not respond to requests for comment on Measure LL from KQED. They are also, as of late October, not actively campaigning against it.
But they are campaigning against Gallo and Kalb. Both councilmen are running for re-election to their city council seats and OPOA has spent almost $35,000 to unseat them.
"The police officer's union has sent out hit pieces on us," Kalb says. He says objectively, he can't understand why. "Both Noel and I have been supportive of growing our department, paying them well. I took the lead on hiring more investigators."
Kalb is adamant that being pro-police and pro-police commission are not in opposition.
Rockne Lucia, the lawyer who represents police, says the Oakland Police Department is already under the microscope.
"It’s probably the department in the country with the most oversight, the most accountability of any police department in the country," Lucia says.
He says he understands the calls for transparency, and he says police have no problem with citizen oversight, but in this heightened political climate, they're worried about the way it may work.
"When people with political agendas get involved with police oversight, civilian review, then they are going to bring those prejudices, those biases with them, as part of the review process," Lucia says.
But civil rights lawyer John Burris says especially given the fractured relationship between the police and the community, the commission could create a bridge.
"It will offer an opportunity for the public to be more involved," Burris says.
Burris is no stranger to police oversight. He's one of the lawyers that sued Oakland in the Rider's case, leading to the federal monitor. Like Lucia, Burris also warns of what could happen if the police commission plays politics.
"The danger of course when you have a police commission is whether or not it becomes politicized," Burris says.
But his concerns go in the opposite direction. To be truly independent a commission can’t be influenced by politicians who want to protect the city’s reputation and pocketbook, he says.
He knows the federal monitor won't be there forever. But if voters approve Measure LL, the police commission will.
Burris says civilian oversight will only be successful if the newly created commission gets the support of OPD, from the top brass to the rank-and-file.
"I’m hopeful that there will be sufficient buy-in by the police officers within the department, that’s a function of the chief, and the command staff, and how it’s communicated to the officers," Burris says.
Oakland is currently without a permanent police chief, but the city is engaged in search for the position, and expects to have it filled in the beginning of 2017.
If Measure LL passes, it will present an experiment in policing the police. Whether it will add another layer of bureaucracy or whether it will help Oakland on it's journey to create real lasting police reform is impossible to predict, Burris says.