upper waypoint

From Scandal to Scrutiny: How Vigilant Citizen Oversight Helped Reshape Oakland's Police Force

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

An Oakland police officer stands behind yellow caution tape, with a police car in the background.
Oakland police investigate a homicide on 35th Avenue near Suter Street on May 26, 2021. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

The man was screaming, but the beating didn’t stop.

It was June 27, 2000, and the Oakland Police Department’s vaunted gang task force was at work in West Oakland. The officers worked one of the most dangerous beats in one of the most violent parts of the city. They called themselves the Riders.

One member of the task force beat Delphine Allen on the soles of his feet with batons, according to trial testimony. Police pepper-sprayed him and drove him under a freeway overpass, where the beating continued, a rookie officer who witnessed the beating would later testify.

Allen called out for his mother, who lived nearby. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he said in court.

The rookie police officer who witnessed the assault on Allen filed a complaint in July 2000. The resulting scandal upended the department and touched off a massive overhaul in how the department judges its own officers’ conduct.


Today, Oakland has arguably become the state’s most watched police department, under the guise of both a federal monitor and strong civilian oversight. In this city of 435,000, civilians have the power to overrule the police department.

related coverage

“The direction that Oakland is taking is the inevitable path for a modern-day progressive police department,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “And so I believe that we’re on the front lines, we’re the vanguard of police reform.”

Statewide data helps tell that story. The Oakland Police Department "sustains" complaints against its officers at a rate higher than that of any other major law enforcement entity, except the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to a CalMatters analysis of California Department of Justice data.

Complaints originate with citizens, or from the department’s internal affairs unit. A sustained complaint indicates the department believed the person who complained, and could discipline those officers involved.

Statewide, law enforcement agencies marked as sustained 7.6% of complaints against their officers from 2016 to 2020. In those years, the Oakland Police Department "sustained" complaints at an average rate of 11.3%, the data shows.

In 2018 and 2020, the department sustained more than 15.2% of complaints, double the state average.

“I think we’re doing a much more thorough evaluation,” said Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. “I also think when you have a community with very low trust in law enforcement, it means that law enforcement has to make sure that they have legitimate and professional processes so we can build trust.”

The state's DOJ has collected the number of complaints and those sustained since 2016, the result of a bill that ordered agencies to establish a procedure to investigate complaints by the public against officers and publish the results.

The Oakland police complaint process is now handled by both its internal affairs division and a civilian panel that oversees the department.

And among the rank and file, there has been fallout.

Today, officers are leaving the department in higher numbers, from an average of about four per month late last year to 10 or 15 a month since then, according to Armstrong.

“We haven’t seen these type of numbers since I’ve been at the department, and that’s been over two decades,” he said. “When you work in a big city that’s under the microscope like Oakland, I’m sure that can be challenging to some officers.”

“I’ve been pushing the same message to officers, that you can’t escape the calls for reform,” he added. “No matter where you go, you’re going to see more community involvement, the community paying more attention to the actions of officers.”

The website Oaklandside reported that, in a sample of 30 exit interviews with Oakland police officers, half were leaving because of dissatisfaction with leadership at the police department or city, and seven cited “heavy discipline.” Others cited family reasons, low morale and better jobs, among other factors.

“I’ve been doing some exit interviews with officers that are choosing to go to other departments, and what I tell them is the Oakland way is going to be the American way any minute now,” Schaaf told CalMatters.

The Oakland Riders' legacy

Before the Oakland rookie police officer blew the whistle on the Riders, he was told that beating, kidnapping and planting drugs on people was simply how police work was done, he later testified in court.

At trial in 2004, the former rookie, Keith Batts, testified that he didn’t immediately report what he saw. He was new to the department and feared repercussions for reporting excessive use of force.

Three members of the Riders would eventually be fired, but juries would later acquit them of some criminal charges and deadlock on many others. A fourth member, Riders leader Frank Vazquez, fled the city in November 2000, and prosecutors have said they believe he’s in hiding in Mexico.

More than 100 people sued the police department in federal court. The cases were combined into a negotiated settlement agreement, in which the police department consented to reforms and accepted a federal monitoring team. The team would oversee dozens of proposed reforms at the department, especially concerning its use-of-force policy and the process by which complaints are treated.

The original monitoring team and its successor, appointed in 2010, have both praised and condemned the Oakland police for their conduct since 2003. But in the ensuing two decades, one fundamental change has made the biggest difference: Oakland residents have garnered a lot more power over their police department.

First, in a 2016 ballot measure, the city’s voters put the whole department under civilian oversight. Then, in 2020, the civilian police commission fired the city’s police chief.

In December, the city hired its first inspector general for the police department, a civilian position overseen by the civilian board.

Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the Oakland Police Officers’ Association and several other Bay Area police department unions, said the level of oversight in Oakland exceeds what he’s seen anywhere else.

“They pay a lot more attention to police conduct in Oakland,” Lucia said. “There’s more eyes on people. There’s policies, software programs, there’s resources committed. It’s more than I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the state.”

Lucia wonders if Oakland should be spending the amount of money it does on oversight, given rising crime rates that began during the pandemic and the city’s always-muddy financial situation, only 18 months removed from a $62 million budget shortfall. But he also acknowledges that the department is identifying potentially problematic officers.

“They’re catching these things early,” Lucia said.

A tale of two scandals

Two years before the beating of Delphine Allen, a different and more infamous gang task force controversy erupted 350 miles south: the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal.

The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — or CRASH — unit was to Los Angeles what the Riders were to Oakland: an elite group of cops on a special detail that made big busts in the LAPD’s Rampart Division.

CRASH unit officers also were accused of robbing a bank, stealing cocaine from the evidence room and replacing it with Bisquick, and beating a suspect until he vomited blood.

As a result, in 1998 the LAPD instituted a new policy: Any complaints against an officer would trigger an investigation.

Complaints against officers piled up, major crimes arrests dropped, and officers started to complain that the system treated them unfairly.

“Complaints against officers soared,” wrote University of Chicago economics professor Canice Prendergast in a 2021 paper analyzing the scandal’s fallout. “These were sustained at high rates, resulting in suspensions, resignations and terminations at levels far higher than before.”

Any complaint tied up officers’ promotions and transfers. Prendergast found that the level of sustained complaints was even more damaging to police morale.

In response, the officers radically reduced their engagement with the public, according to Prendergast’s paper, “Drive and Wave,” which is named after the practice of nonengagement.

Arrests plummeted. The LAPD accepted a federal monitor from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000 and nearly 90% of LAPD officers interviewed by the monitor in 2001 said a fear of discipline stopped them from “proactively” doing their jobs.

Then, the LAPD was handed a big win by, of all things, the federal monitor itself, which encouraged the department to clear up its backlog of complaints.

Prendergast found the police department’s solution in long-buried LAPD archives, a decision that was put out among the department’s employees but never publicized: The LAPD gave its commanding officers the power to dismiss complaints against their subordinates.

That meant complaints could be dismissed moments after they were filed by an officer’s superior.

As a result, sustained complaints fell dramatically, beginning in 2003, and penalties for sustained complaints were much more rare, Prendergast found.

From 2016 to 2020, the last year for which statistics are available, the LAPD sustained complaints at a rate of 5.2%, below the statewide average for that period.

“Disciplinary measures across the board became less likely,” Prendergast wrote, “even when an investigation ruled against the officer.”

Some officers 'just tired'

Under California law, there are four outcomes for a complaint against a police officer:

— Complaints can be sustained, meaning the investigation proved the allegation to be true by a preponderance of evidence.

— An officer can be exonerated, meaning the officer did what was described, but that action didn’t violate department law or policy.

— Complaints can be ruled “unsustained,” meaning the investigation failed to clearly prove or disprove the allegation.

— Complaints can be determined “unfounded,” meaning the investigation clearly showed the allegation was untrue.

For much of the Oakland Police Department’s time under a federal monitor, most complaints were relegated to the “unfounded” bin, said John Burris, one of two lead plaintiff attorneys in the settlement agreement between the police department and the city following the Riders scandal.

But with increased civilian oversight since 2016, he said far fewer complaints were dismissed as unfounded.

Burris said cases dismissed as “unfounded” were the ones that bothered him the most.

“[Complainants are] not lying. I may not be able to prove it, but something happened,” Burris said, and noted that unfounded complaints also disappear from officers’ personnel files.

Today, when a complaint is filed, the Oakland police and the Civilian Police Review Agency launch parallel investigations. Each draws its own conclusions.

When there’s a difference of opinion, the question goes to another set of civilian monitors — the civilian Police Commission — which holds final authority on questions of officer misconduct.

Tyfahra Milele, chair of the commission, said she can empathize with officers who feel they are over-policed by their civilian overseers. She said that officers tell her they’re more afraid to engage residents because they’re worried about a complaint, which can tie up their promotions and damage their careers.

Since the recent police-related killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Atlanta, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, “there’s much more of a vigilance around police and accountability,” Milele said. “Some officers are like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go to work and ride this wave. Some [officers say], this isn’t the role for me, all these other factors are making it difficult.’”

And then “we have some officers that are just tired,” she added.

Despite what Burris, the attorney, described as widespread opposition among the department’s rank and file to civilian oversight, it has resulted in a higher level of scrutiny of officer behavior, according to lawyers on both sides of the city’s 2003 negotiated settlement agreement.

Attorneys representing Allen, who originally brought the lawsuit in Oakland, expect the settlement agreement with the police department to end in 2023 or 2024.

A hearing before a U.S. District Court in San Francisco to determine the department’s progress is set for April 27.

“It’s taken a long time, but we’re finally getting traction,” said Burris. “Our hope is we’ll fundamentally ingrain things in the culture.”


He added, “It’s my worst nightmare about the case, that it’s all for naught. That it goes back to the way it was.”

lower waypoint
next waypoint