Surprise, Disappointment, 'Time for Change': Reactions in Wake of Oakland Police Chief's Firing

From left, Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and Mayor Libby Schaaf gather outside federal court in San Francisco on July 10, 2017. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Oakland's Police Commission voted unanimously to dismiss Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick in a closed session meeting Thursday evening, a decision joined by Mayor Libby Schaaf, who said the trust between the civilian oversight body and the chief had been "irrevocably lost."

The Police Commission, created by voter approval of Measure LL in 2016, has the power to unilaterally fire a police chief for cause. Kirkpatrick was terminated without cause, which requires Schaaf's sign-off.

"I must respect the authority and the role of our independent Police Commission," Schaaf said at a press conference Thursday evening. "I must respect key stakeholders who must have trust in our police chief."

Schaaf said she did not regret hiring Kirkpatrick, who took the job in early 2017 with a bold pledge to satisfy federal court oversight of the Police Department, which has been in place for 17 years. Since then, the federal court's monitor has repeatedly found Kirkpatrick's leadership lacking, notably clashing with the chief over her attempt to reduce discipline for officers who fatally shot a homeless man as he began to wake up in March 2018.

Federal monitor Robert Warshaw did not oppose Kirkpatrick's removal, Schaaf said.

"Since the Commission's inception, the Commissioners, along with the rest of the citizens of the City of Oakland, observed the Oakland Police Department's failure to increase compliance with the court-ordered reforms," Police Commission Chair Regina Jackson said in a written statement. "Our new Chief must address use-of-force issues and end the need for a court-appointed monitor."

Later, in an interview, Jackson said the decision was not a dramatic move. "Over the last two and a half years of working with the chief, we have become increasingly uncomfortable to the point that we've lost confidence in her ability to get us where we needed to go."

Jackson added that the community "never had much trust" in Kirkpatrick and that they continually asked for the chief's termination.

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The mayor noted that Kirkpatrick was hired "in the wake of a shameful episode" — several OPD officers' sexual exploitation of a teenager — and praised her for bringing steady leadership that stabilized the department.

Oakland hired Kirkpatrick after former Police Chief Sean Whent, and a succession of two replacements left the post within a week in 2016.

Oakland Police Officers' Association President Barry Donelan called the decision disappointing. He also criticized the Police Commission and mayor in a written statement, calling the city's police chief position "the most difficult Chief's job in the nation."

"[F]ighting for Oakland's residents and Police Officers alike does not endear you to Oakland's unelected Police Commissioners and our Mayor," Donelan said. "These events don't bode well for public safety in Oakland."

Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, who brought forward the Oakland Riders case that resulted in the Police Department needing to make reforms, said it was time for change when asked about his reaction to Kirkpatrick's firing.

"[Kirkpatrick] was not moving the department in the right direction," Chanin said. "We were going further and further from full compliance."

Dan Kalb, the Oakland City councilmember who authored Measure LL, which allowed the Police Commission to fire Kirkpatrick with the mayor's blessing, said he was surprised by the decision.

"I knew there was some disagreements or some even some tension between many of the commissioners and the police chief, but I did not expect the firing of our police chief," Kalb said.

But Kalb said he respects the commission's decision. He also said Kirkpatrick's three years in the police chief position is a "decent amount of time" for the department to make mandated reforms, and in recent years, he said there's been concern that the department was regressing in some areas.

"Under this chief they made progress on one or two [of the reforms], but they also backtracked on a couple," Kalb said. "So I think the commission was feeling frustrated that, in a couple of areas, the department was backtracking ... and that's a problem."

Some observers raised concerns that Kirkpatrick's firing illustrates the lack of leadership consistency within the Police Department.

"There is a cost in turnover, but there is also a cost in keeping someone when we're not making progress," Chanin said.

Robert Weisberg, co-chair of Stanford's Criminal Justice Center, said Kirkpatrick had to walk a fine line when trying to meet the demands of the federal monitor.

"It's sad because I think she is a very well-regarded police chief and had a fair amount of trust, from the line officers," Weisberg said. "It seems that she just had trouble navigating her way through the conflicting forces aligned against her."

Both Weisberg and Chanin said whoever steps into the police chief position will have a difficult job.

"You're going to have to do things that some people don't like in order to make this department go in the direction that we want it to go, it's not about pleasing everybody," Chanin said.

Weisberg said the position is an "extremely unattractive job" and a "no-win situation."

"You walk in with a shadow over what you’re doing because you’re walking into a court injunction," he said.

Because she was dismissed without cause, Kirkpatrick may be eligible for a year's salary in severance pay, Schaaf said.

Deputy Chief Darren Allison will serve as acting police chief while Oakland conducts a national search for a permanent replacement for Kirkpatrick.

KQED's Raquel Maria Dillon, Alex Emslie, Marnette Federis, Mina Kim and Tara Siler contributed to this report.

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