An Ugly Night at the Oakland Police Commission: A Commissioner Quit, Another Left, And Quite a Few Regrettable Public Statements Made

Posted on February 19, 2019

0


“This is one for the record books”. That’s the last audible statement on the official city video record of the February 14, 2019 Oakland Police Commission Meeting. The voice is that of Commissioner Regina Jackson, the newly elected Chair of the Police Commission, after having called the adjournment and wearily rising from the center Chair. But that statement uttered into a hot mic after a contentious meeting is some kind of understatement.

The main event that night was the selection of the new Chair, a relatively bloodless deliberation for other city bodies, but one that laid bare many of the rocks the fledgling police commission continues to break on. Institutional interference and blockade has been the salient feature of the Oakland Police Commission’s history. Mayor Libby Schaaf, her subordinate Administrator’s office, her council allies, the police union and even the city union all did what they could to delay and weaken Measure LL (including giving the Mayor nearly half of the appointments) even before it saw the 2016 ballot. Even after the substantially altered measure passed by an overwhelming plurality of city voters, Council Members, the city attorney and administrator delayed the enabling of the Police Commission for over a year. As the ordinance finally giving legal standing to the commission was passed last year, City Administrator Landreth (who was acting Police Chief for part of 2016) even took the unusual act of speaking out against the Commission and characterizing the ordinance as Trumpist, which drew some gasps and ironic laughter from the audience.

What should have been a minor political whirlwind over leadership at Tuesday’s meeting, thus, gained clusterfuck-velocity in the baffles created by city officials. On the surface, the source of the tension seemed obvious: Jackson, is a mayoral appointee and was nominated for Chair by a mayoral appointee, Edwin Prather; community appointee Ginale Harris was nominated by a community appointee, Jose Dorado. It would be easy to make this a good vs bad battle between noble community members versus corrupt city agents, but that would elide many confounding realities of the past year. The often good intentions of Edwin Prather and Thomas Smith are palpable and reflected in late decent outcomes; and the behavior of community picks like Jose Dorado, whose recent PAC set historic records in political influence-peddling and fund-raising are, to be charitable, unhelpful to the Commission. And outside simple boosterism, community-appointed Commissioner Mubarak Ahmad was the crucial vote for Jackson over Harris.

The wobbles during the Chair vote come from deeper places, within the ideology that animates the world the mayoral candidates emerge from. In this NGO-CityGov realm, “mistakes” that happen in the penumbra of institutional processes are understandable and well-intentioned, while those that fall outside of it, even when they are less egregious or serious, are intolerable. This unspoken rule of our mistakes are fine and yours are horrifying was the source of the friction between the candidacies of Regina Jackson, a mayoral appointee and Ginale Harris, a community appointee.

Perhaps unintentionally, almost every Commissioner who spoke in favor of electing Jackson to Chair (and, in the case of Andrea Dooley, former Commissioner), included veiled and negative references to Harris. That Harris has been an outspoken critic of the institutional barriers placed in front of the Commission is obvious to anyone whose been to Commission meetings–what some would regard as impolitic statements and acts, and even some acts which may have unintentionally run afoul of city rules. But there was absolutely nothing Harris had done that warranted the micro-aggression directed at her by other Commissioners.

First, Commissioners that backed Jackson showed no interest in comparing and contrasting the skill sets and contributions of the nominees–even out of some sense of decorum in a public setting. Rather, the assumption that Harris brought absolutely nothing to the role, while Jackson had all the gifts was foremost in their commentary. Most people knowing little about Jackson and Harris would assume Harris had no experience in law, nor in organizational processes. But Harris has a degree in Criminal Justice and worked with youth on parole and probation for an SF based organization for nearly two decades. Both of these seemingly important experiences received short shrift in the deliberations.

The barely veiled invective against Harris–especially by ex-commissioner Dooley and former Chair Smith–was also startling. Dooley, for example, characterized the nomination of Harris as a sentimental effort of “elevating someone because its their turn”. The statement was all the more remarkable because after warmly greeting Dooley, Smith never turned on the timer for public comment for her. Her commentary was given official status by allowing her all the time in the world to read from her statement, which took three minutes to complete, while other members of the public were only given two.

 

 

Commissioner Smith’s remarks in favor of Jackson were also alarming. He characterized the decision as one between “motivation that comes from hurt and hate” and the motivation of Jackson, which he characterized as driven by love. If it wasn’t Smith’s intention to paint the motivation of Harris–the only other person nominated for Chair–as “hate”-driven, it’s difficult to understand what he was doing. Smith’s plea for Jackson took on a life of its own in an uncalled-for 8 minute speech.

 

 

It’s ironic that Smith saw his own opinion as worthy of the longest soliloquy by a Commissioner that night, because so much of Thomas’ tenure as Chair was, objectively, disastrous. One of Thomas’ first acts after being named Chair last year was to inscrutably position himself as a city official at the scene of the officer-involved shooting of Joshua Pawlik–an act that publicly conflated the Commission with the operational OPD and inadvertently placed Thomas as a witness to some events of the OIS. Thomas apparently did so without notifying the other Commissioners. While the effects on the Commission’s Pawlik investigation remain unknown, Thomas’ act clearly alienated a significant portion of the public, who brought their complaints to a subsequent Police Commission meeting. Thomas’ reaction to criticism in the Commission’s Chair was petulant and defensive–he actually talked over one speaker in a rubber-glue reminiscent mantra. As he sought to defend himself during public comment, he fought against the recommendations of the Commission’s own legal counsel who warned him he risked violating the Brown Act.

 

 

It would take quite a while to give an accurate picture of the inordinate number of Brown Act and other violations committed by Smith as Chair. That’s not much of a surprise, because nearly all of the Commissioners have individually, and collectively, carried out numerous Brown act violations, and perhaps other unintentional violations of city rules and laws that may come back to haunt them sooner or later–in fact, nothing has so consistently characterized the Commission than unintentional Brown Act violation upon Brown Act violation.

With that in mind, Smith must have thought he was coming up with a uniquely effective selling point for Jackson when he noted her redemptive familiarity with the Brown Act and other government rules as the salient reason to elect her as Chair. But Jackson’s putative familiarity with the Brown Act and process turned out to be over-rated.

In one of Jackson’s first acts as Chair less than half an hour later, she violated the Brown Act by moving from an item before public comment on it. Jackson subsequently failed to allow for a report back on items discussed during closed session, even after audience members reminded her to do so–another Brown Act violation. Jackson shot down a motion on a dual vice-chair structure without bothering to ask counsel about the legality. Jackson also shot down the discussion by closing out the comments of Commissioner Dorado, who’d raised the issue as part of his response to being nominated for Vice Chair.

Jackson had no information on budgetary discussion–ironically, the people charged with that information, Benson and Harris, who seem to do far more nuts and bolts work than any other Commissioner, had already left the meeting and were not available to detail their work on it. Harris had left shortly after responding to Smith’s offensive speech, Benson resigned after watching Jackson eliminate the motion for dual Vice Chairs without any idea of whether it was lawful.

 

 

Only Commissioner Maureen Benson brought up criteria based on Commission performance in the discussion of the nominations for Chair. Benson detailed the inordinate amount of work Harris put into the nuts and bolts of the commission, and the issues that she’d brought to the attention of the members–but again, this sparked no interest in the Mayoral appointees. While acknowledging Jackson’s contributions, Benson also noted that as the Executive Director of a non-profit, Jackson seemed to struggle with allotting time to the Commission sufficient to carry out her duties.

The issue of Jackson’s time capacity isn’t simply Benson’s opinion, however. Oakland’s public video record of the Commission’s meetings from August 23, 2018 to January 24, 2019, shows that Jackson missed half of the public Commission meetings in the six months preceding Thursday’s vote. Additionally, Jackson arrived so late during the November 8, 2018 meeting where OPD Chief Kirkpatrick was scheduled to give a report, that she missed the discussion. It’s not at all an exaggeration that Jackson’s record of attendance alone should have created doubts about her candidacy for Chair. But with the adversarial dynamic, no Mayoral Commissioner even acknowledged the reality.

The Commission’s debate never became an honest question of who was a better choice for the Chair. Both Jackson and Harris have strengths and weaknesses that would have been debated openly and publicly by all Commission members, if that was the case. Rather, the struggle was due to institutional alignments, and the elephant in the room–Mayoral appointment and its discontents–was a central part of it.

The Mayoral problem manifested itself in two ways. One, given the Mayor’s outsized role in stifling the Commission through proxies, an inherent division was greatly exacerbated by Mayoral appointees who didn’t acknowledge and take good-will measures to distance themselves from their origin point on the commission. When confronted with this reality Thursday, for example Prather said he wants to be known as just a Commissioner, not the Mayor’s Commissioner, quite a cop-out; Jackson’s response was worse, perhaps, with a self-serving nod to the Mayor’s wisdom in picking her. All it would have taken in both cases was a sober reflection that the Mayor’s administration had done grave harm to the Commission and a promise to work against that–but as yet, no mayoral appointee has been able to muster that simple act.

The fact that mayoral appointees never saw confidence-building as a worthy undertaking for the success of the Commission shows the exact weaknesses in leadership and “bridge-building” they fooled themselves into believing they were routing with Jackson’s nomination. You see this second manifestation of the Mayoral problem in Prather’s back to back nominations of Mayoral appointees without consideration to the perception it would engender in the public, and indeed, in the most affected communities. It’s visible in Smith’s unilateral actions at the Pawlik scene, and his attempts to silence a speaker while he read off the names of verified community organizations critical of his actions. And it couldn’t be missed in Jackson’s abrupt and imperial dismissal of actual “bridge-building” attempts in the proposal to bifurcate the vice-chair–that move led in less than 15 minutes to a Commissioner’s resignation, certainly one for the record books that exist for tracking extreme alienation of colleagues. All of these reek of the kind of hubris that only members of institutional politics are capable of maintaining, but they’ve passed so far without comment.

This insitutionally-backed self-confidence in the face of failure and bad judgement is the reason why Jackson’s nomination was not weighed the same way that Harris’ was by Mayoral nominees. Jackson comes from an affluent hillside background, and makes public appearances with the Mayor, while Harris’ lives in the challenged Deep East flatlands Jackson’s non-profit gives aid to. Dooley and Smith’s remarks stand out prominently here. Dooley’s implication that the Chair would be a charitable gift for an unqualified candidate was reminiscent of conservative political talking points; Smith’s bizarre claim that Harris, a resident of deep East Oakland was afflicted by “hate”, and perhaps even more offensively, that she was a “hurt” i.e., damaged person was a shocking window into his pov. These were astonishing revelations of deep-seated debilitating biases held by these Commissioners. Perhaps it should have been these statements that made observers question some of the Commission’s failures of the previous year. But only the mistakes of Harris were entered into the great book of disqualification.

This primary orbit of three of the Police Commissioners around institutional wisdom is certainly not the Commission’s only problem, but it does have other effects. For one, it lends support to the normative status of the very forces that protect the OPD. The OPD is not simply an institution that requires ongoing oversight, it is an institution that has been under federal oversight for fifteen years, longer than any other police department in the history of police oversight. Key to that continued operation as a literally criminal police department has been the endless support OPD has received, city administration after city administration. The Commission itself was meant to be an end run around the institutional framework run by the Mayor that has allowed OPD to continue its oppressive ways, not as another political body led by people who describe their compromised relationships with the Mayor as good politicking.

The fixation with working alongside city-leaders and institutions, bridge-building, leadership and as Smith later commented on, “political savvy” ignores the entire reason why the Commission exists today–the acts of thousands of people, and in many cases, those people most affected by police violence and repression, defying these very institutions, often at great personal risk in exhausting protests that sometimes lasted weeks. These people violated “norms” of behavior, civility, law and all the rest in the absolute recognition of one thing–the institutions led by the very same Mayor who personally chose nearly half of the Commissioners are the enabler of the problem.

It’s clear that in the minds of many of those who fought the battles that laid the groundwork for the Police Commission, the Commision’s power to fire the Chief without need for the Office of Mayor was the only thing that gave them hope. But given the mindset of these Mayoral appointees, the crucial 5th vote necessary for that is unlikely to be found amongst them, no matter what the offense.

It wasn’t the Mayor or the Selection Committee that empowered the Commission, but thousands of people on the streets demanding change at long last. But these are the very people who’ve given up on the Commission and are never at their meetings. That’s a problem many Commission members missed on Thursday during their deliberations, and one they haven’t even started to fix yet.

Posted in: Uncategorized