Ruling opens police documents in ‘Riders’ aftermath

A federal judge has ordered Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker to turn over documents to a court-appointed official who is investigating why the city is losing many arbitration cases filed by officers who have been disciplined for alleged wrongdoing.

In the latest twist in an 11-year-long legal saga, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson said his chosen investigator, San Francisco attorney Ed Swanson, could review documents that Parker said were protected by attorney-client privilege.

But Henderson’s order, which he issued on Monday, precludes Swanson from sharing information contained in the documents with anyone other than his employees or the Police Department’s court-appointed federal monitor, Robert Warshaw.

Henderson said:

“The court finds good cause to allow Mr. Swanson to access the disputed documents in a manner that maintains the city’s assertions of privilege.”

Parker said in a statement:

“I am very pleased that the court’s order adopts all of the changes we proposed and acknowledges my duty to protect and maintain attorney-client privilege for the city of Oakland. This is exactly why I sought a ruling by the court on this important issue.”

City Attorney spokesman Alex Katz said:

“Both sides are pleased with this outcome. The investigator will be able to see the documents and the privileges the city is bound to uphold are protected.”

In 2003, Henderson approved the settlement of a police misconduct lawsuit that requires Oakland police to implement 51 reforms in a variety of areas.

The suit was filed by 119 Oakland citizens who alleged that four officers known as the “Riders” beat them, made false arrests and planted evidence on them in 2000 while they were part of a police operation that was trying to crack down on drug dealers in West Oakland.

Criminal charges were filed against three of the officers but they weren’t convicted of any charges in two lengthy and highly-publicized trials. The fourth officer fled the country before he could be prosecuted.

The court-mandated reforms include improved investigation of citizen complaints, better training of officers and increased field supervision.

In August, Henderson ordered an investigation into why independent arbitrators have often overturned discipline that been imposed against Oakland police officers, saying, “Any reversal of appropriate discipline undermines the very objectives” of the reform program.

Henderson said those objectives including promoting police integrity, preventing police conduct that deprives people of their rights and having the best available police practices and procedures. Warshaw said in a report in July that Oakland was closer than ever to completing the court-mandated reforms.

But Henderson said in August that the city can no longer be considered with two important reform tasks if its internal investigations are inadequate and discipline is frequently overturned: dealing with police internal affairs investigations and the consistency of officer discipline.

Henderson specifically cited an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Officer Robert Roche, who had been fired for his actions in an Occupy Oakland protest on Oct. 25, 2011.

One of Swanson’s clients is Joseph Bontempo, a locksmith who’s charged with murder for the death of his wife, 57-year-old Laurie Wolfe, at their home in Oakland’s Montclair district in July.

Swanson appeared with Bontempo at a brief hearing in Alameda County Superior Court on Monday at which the preliminary hearing for Bontempo, who is being held in custody without bail, was scheduled for Feb. 9.