Report blasts Oakland police over discipline

Oakland police officers who are fired for misconduct are reinstated at arbitration hearings 75 percent of the time because department officials and the city attorney’s office do a poor job of handling the cases, a report says.

San Francisco attorney Ed Swanson compiled the report at the request of U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, who is supervising the Oakland Police Department’s slow progress in complying with a police misconduct lawsuit settlement in 2003 that requires the department to implement 51 reforms in a variety of areas.

Henderson appointed Swanson last year because he was troubled that the city was losing many arbitration hearings in police discipline cases. In appointing Swanson, Henderson said “Any reversal of appropriate discipline undermines the very objectives” of the reform program.

Swanson said that over the past five years, arbitrators have upheld the city’s decision to impose discipline in only 7 of 26 cases. And he said in 15 of those 26 cases, the suspension, demotion or termination of officers were reduced to written reprimands or no discipline at all.

Swanson wrote in his report:

“These results are cause for grave concern. What they suggest is that, in recent years, the odds have been very high that the city will lose at arbitration.”

Swanson said the city shouldn’t win all arbitration cases in police discipline matters, but he said Oakland’s 75 percent failure rate is significantly higher than the 60 percent failure nationwide. He said:

“For years, Oakland’s police discipline process has failed to deliver fair, consistent and effective discipline.”

The result, Swanson said, is that:

“Many, both inside and outside of the Police Department, have little faith in the integrity of the process.”

Swanson criticized the Oakland City Attorney’s Office for what he said is its “neglect and indifference and handling of police disciplinary cases and arbitration” because it doesn’t prepare well for them. He also said the relationship between the Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office has been “dysfunctional” and the two offices “have viewed each other warily and have not consistently supported each other’s needs in the disciplinary process.”

The tension in their relationship “has only exacerbated problems with the discipline system,” Swanson wrote.

Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said in a statement:

“We have reviewed the report and appreciate the seriousness of the shortcomings in the police disciplinary process that it has identified.”

Whent said department officials “take police accountability very seriously” and agree with many of the report’s recommendations and have already implemented some of them and are working on implementing others.

Whent also said:

“Our working relationship with the City Attorney’s Office has improved significantly in recent months and we believe the closer partnership will result in better arbitration results.”

City Attorney officials weren’t available for comment today. Swanson recommends that the City Attorney’s Office work closely with the Police Department in preparing for arbitration cases and that it assign an attorney to the department’s internal affairs unit to improve the investigative process.

Swanson also said the city should create a formal process for hiring and assigning lawyers to disciplinary cases. He said if the city implements his proposed reforms in a sustainable way:

“We are confident it will improve not only its performance in police disciplinary arbitrations but also its relationship of trust and confidence with the community it serves.”