OAKLAND, CA – The court-appointed police leader responsible for carrying out long overdue reforms in Oakland has squashed a reform initiative passed by the City Council, leaving police critics and several council members feeling betrayed.
Thomas Frazier, a former Baltimore police commissioner, spent much of Thursday explaining to council members why he overturned their directive to hire civilian clerks to intake citizen complaints against police officers and have them work outside the Police Department.
“I’m very disappointed,” Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said Thursday shortly before she was scheduled to meet with Frazier. “It’s contrary to what the public had been promised and what the council had authorized.”
Frazier did approve the council’s decision to transfer the complaint intake jobs to civilians, a move that is expected to free up eight officers on desk duty to patrol city streets.
But after conferring with U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who holds tremendous power over the Police Department, Frazier informed city officials in a three-paragraph email Wednesday afternoon that the intake workers would operate out of the department’s Internal Affairs Division. The email gave no explanation for his action.
The council had first voted in 2009 to move the jobs to the Citizens’ Police Review Board, although the directive was never carried out. With public confidence in police at a low ebb, lawmakers said that residents would have more faith in police investigations of their own members if the workers taking the complaints were divorced from the department.
Frazier’s ruling was applauded by Oakland’s police union, which doesn’t trust the civilian board, but came as a shock to proponents of the reform, who had been assured by Frazier days earlier that he was on their side.
“I am stunned and dismayed,” said Rashidah Grinage, who heads the community group PUEBLO that pushed for the reform. “It’s clear what is motivating him. It’s to stay on good terms with the (police union) to help him get compliance on the (court-mandated) reforms.
Police union President Barry Donelan said officers were concerned that intake workers stationed in the civilian oversight board would try to spin complaints against officers before handing off the investigations to sworn internal affairs officers.
“This wasn’t about police reform,” he said. “This was about empowering people with an ax to grind against cops.”
The civilian board already intakes and investigates citizen complaints against officers independently from Internal Affairs, but it only has power to recommend disciplinary action.
It is rare for cities to move complaint intake outside Internal Affairs, although several major cities, including San Francisco, rely on civilian boards to investigate citizen complaints against police.
Frazier was appointed to the powerful role of police compliance director in March with wide-ranging authority to make the department comply with reforms stemming from the 1999 Riders police brutality scandal. Many of the reforms, which were supposed to have been completed five years ago, centered on the department’s ability to police itself and properly investigate officer misconduct.
Frazier was billed as a progressive reformer upon his appointment. His willingness to use his authority to block a measure intended to improve public confidence in internal police investigations frustrated proponents of the initiative.
“It is a very ironic twist that the (court-ordered reforms) that were supposed to advance the interest of the community has instead set back the interest of the community by allowing the court to overturn a democratically approved policy,” Grinage said.
Frazier appeared to waffle on the issue for months. In July, he informed City Administrator Deanna Santana that he saw a “substantial problem” having complaint intake workers under the citizen review board’s jurisdiction. But less than two weeks ago, he confirmed to Grinage in an email that he had “no wish to impede or obstruct the City Council policy decision” that the jobs “will reside in the Citizens’ Police Review Board.”
Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, who met with Frazier on Thursday, wouldn’t disclose Frazier’s reasons for overturning the council’s directive, but said she was not opposed to his ruling.
“I see merit in his decision based on the fact Internal Affairs is being reformed in a way that can give the public confidence in the results of their investigations,” she said.