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Oakland Councilmember Wants to Rid Police Commission of Political Influence

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Voters decided less than four years ago to establish an independent Oakland Police Commission as an extra level of oversight on the police department, which would have had some teeth if allowed to do the job they were sent in to do. With the overwhelming passage of Measure LL, the commission would have the power to investigate officers, write policy and ultimately fire the police chief if deemed appropriate. Things haven’t quite worked out like that.

Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan is frustrated with the half-assed attempt to appease voters while going about business as usual. She is not alone.

Both former and current commissioners express concerns over what they see as an abundance of political influence, lack of budget and structural confusion.

Oakland Police Department. Photo courtesy of ABC7

Oakland Police Commision Vice Chair Ginale Harris said:

“For the last 18 months we have been working with a broken wing.”

Kaplan is drafting a ballot measure in an effort to repair the broken wing. Kaplan wants to remove the choke hold of political influence, increase the budget and streamline processes that will empower the commission to perform its duties independently. The proposed measure will be presented to the Rules Committee in a meeting Thursday and could show up on the ballot as early as March.

Maureen Benson, who resigned as a commissioner last February, said she has witnessed the mayor’s interference in the commission’s activities. Three of the seven commissioners are selected by Mayor Libby Schaaf and it is safe to assume they use their roles to prioritize the city’s agendas over the role of independent accountability that voters demanded.

Kaplan and other police reform activists agree that the commission should deal more directly with the federally-appointed police monitor, be taken more seriously by those within the department and should have access to independent legal counsel. The commission is now dependent on the city’s attorney, which also represents the police department. The arrangement is a glaring conflict of interest.

Both the voter-approved police commission and the federal monitor were established in response to scandals and transparency issues that have long plagued the department. The monitor was appointed by a federal judge in 2003 after the Oakland “Riders” case shined a light on the department’s systemic corruption and cover-up culture. Even under the monitor’s supervision, the department has managed to find itself in headlines for all the wrong reasons. An officer was accused of “brutally punching” a 14-year-old girl who was not a suspect in any case — they settled that out of court as they have with several other accusations. But it was the 2016 sexual exploitation case involving then underage “Celeste Guap” that pushed voters over the edge and to the ballot box to approve the independent commission by 83 percent.

Swearing in new officers to Oakland Police Department in 2013. Photo courtesy of SFGate

Harris hopes the changes Kaplan is proposing will address issues beyond the roadblocks that prevent real oversight and public transparency. She’d like to see the commission do more to connect with the communities most impacted by policing failures, especially in areas like where she lives in East Oakland. Harris has “a big problem” with the commission’s lack of community outreach — additional funding might help bridge that gap.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.