U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson is running out of patience. In a Nov. 14 order, he has given the city of Oakland just two more weeks to reach an agreement with the very same folks who sued the city over police misconduct during the Riders scandal.
After that, it looks quite possible that he will appoint a federal receiver to run the police department, a takeover that would be unprecedented in the United States.
But University of California Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring says the judge is sincerely eager for some way to avoid taking over the department.
"There is no real subtlety to the impatience that the court is expressing," said Zimring. "But what Judge Henderson is doing here is acknowledging the administrative difficulties that would be involved with a receivership and trying to dodge that bullet by getting some real negotiated change."
The city has until Nov. 29 to reach an agreement with the plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit against it. After that, Henderson has scheduled a Dec. 13 hearing on whether to appoint a federal receiver who would run the department.
The city agreed in 2003 to dozens of changes in management and training intended to end brutality, false arrests and other abuses.
Over and over since then, Henderson has blasted the department for dragging its feet in completing these reforms. On Oct. 4 the attorneys who first sued the city in 2000 asked the judge to appoint a receiver.
The city responded by suggesting it hire a new compliance director who would serve under the chief of police. In his order on Thursday, Henderson dismissed the suggestion. "Either the position is unnecessary and would result in wasted resources, or it is necessary and the failure to adopt such a position earlier indicates a lack of leadership or will."
District Court Judge Thelton Henderson's Nov. 14 order to the Oakland Police.
Now he's telling the city to come up with a new settlement that will satisfy the plaintiffs by Nov. 29.
After that comes a Dec. 13 hearing in which the judge will consider the motion to appoint a receiver.
Why not just put a receiver in place?
"Once receivership happens what shape it takes and who well it works is going to depend on these same parties negotiating both management strategies and the investment of resources and whatever accountability that effort is going to have back to the court," Zimring said. "So what we mean when something is unprecedented we mean that we're not sure how it's going to work."
The closest precedent would be the takeover of a department of corrections, but running prisons is very different from policing streets, he said.
On the other hand, the Los Angeles Police Department was able to successfully reform after the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s in which officers were accused of similar abuses, Zimring said.
Zimring thinks the police have not made reform a priority. "The delay game has probably been for a long time an intentional part of the department's relationship to the lawsuit," he said.
The department has struggled with rising rates of life-threatening violence at the same time that the economic crisis has constrained its budget.