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Oakland Police Reforms: Going Nowhere Slow

Oakland police chief Anthony Batts
Oakland police chief Anthony Batts

Oakland police chief Anthony Batts
Gerry Shih/The Bay Citizen
Oakland police chief Anthony Batts
Gerry Shih/The Bay Citizen

A hearing on Thursday intended to find out why the Oakland police department seems to have gotten nowhere recently with court-ordered reforms went, well, nowhere.

At the hearing in Federal Judge Thelton Henderson’s courtroom, Police Chief Anthony Batts defended the department’s slow progress, but said he’d made major reforms in his 15 months as chief of police.

The police department entered into the negotiated settlement agreement in 2003 after two civil rights attorneys, Jim Chanin and John Burris, brought a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the department on behalf of victims of police misconduct in the now-infamous Riders case. Four rogue police officers were accused of regularly planting evidence and beating suspects in West Oakland.

The agreement requires the department to enact reforms in eight core areas, including internal affairs, use of force reporting and discipline. The original deadline was in 2005. After two deadline extensions, the department still hasn’t fully completed the 22 remaining tasks.

“I couldn’t help but be struck by a feeling of deja vu,” said Henderson during the hearing, addressing a courtroom filled with city officials, department command staff, union leaders, and various representatives from activist and citizen oversight groups.

“Over and over again, what I’ve read or heard is that progress is being made but we need more time,” he said. “This is not the time for posturing or game-playing. It’s time to make sure we finally finish what should have been done three years ago, in my view.”

Since the department has already effectively missed the latest deadline, both sides of the suit have to forge a new agreement. That did not occur Thursday, despite Henderson’s call to do so.

Burris and Chanin want Henderson to hold some police officials in contempt of court and give the monitors more power to execute reforms at the department; Batts, who is said to not be getting along with the monitors, wants to keep the power but hire outside auditors to help the department figure out how to implement the changes.

Batts defended his position, bemoaning the many bureaucracies that oversee the department, and said the city’s high crime rates, messy budget and the department’s dwindling force are a severe impediment to instituting reforms.

“I am not popular in this police department because I’ve made a lot of changes. I’ve held command staff accountable, police officers accountable,” Batts said. “I have had to move and move very quickly, on top of NSA reforms and providing services to a city that’s the sixth most dangerous in the United States.”

Though the parties have intended to forge a new agreement for weeks, the decision was delayed again on Thursday until a pre-scheduled meeting in April.

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