By Dan Siegel / Original to ScheerPost
Millions of people hit the streets around the world when George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police in May 2020. We demanded criminal prosecution of the white cop who choked Mr. Floyd and called for dramatic changes to U.S. police departments to prevent the killings of innocent Black men.
What changes? Reforms have become cliches – hiring police officers who look like the communities they patrol, Black police chiefs, police review boards, court oversight, restrictions on chokeholds, eliminating no-knock warrants, limitations on the use of “non-lethal” police weapons and more.
On Jan. 7, 2023, five Memphis police officers beat and kicked Tyre Nichols to death. Similar to 46-year old George Floyd, Tyre Nichols was a Black man, 29, unarmed, and guilty, at most, of trivial criminal conduct; police claimed that they stopped him for reckless driving and that he tried to run away from them. The four officers charged in the Floyd case were multiracial working under a Black police chief. In Mr. Nichols’ case, the five cops who murdered him were Black, working in a police department with a Black woman chief.
Oakland, California, has been under federal court oversight since February 2003. A few weeks ago, Oakland’s new mayor, Sheng Thao, fired Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong for his failure to discipline an officer who had been leading a crime suppression campaign in Oakland’s Chinatown. Armstrong, a Black Oakland native, was the latest in a series of chiefs who seemed unable to hold subordinates responsible for their own misconduct.
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Even more recently, Chicago voters rejected a second term for Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Political analysts concluded that voters in Chicago, a city with a sordid history of violent police abuse and powerful community movements against it, blamed Lightfoot, who is Black, for the increase of violent crime there and preferred a mayor who would prioritize a stronger law enforcement response.
These events demonstrate the contradiction inherent in U.S. policing. The public wants the police to be both tough on crime and accountable for protecting people’s rights. History suggests that they cannot have both.
In their important new book, The Riders Come Out at Night, Ali Winston and Darwin Bondgraham document the infuriating story of the Oakland Police Department, focusing on the mostly unsuccessful efforts to reform the department since it was placed under court supervision in 2003. During most of that period, Judge Thelton Henderson oversaw the city’s futile efforts to meet its commitments, spending millions on monitors who reported to the court and even more to compensate victims of police abuse. Judge Henderson, a reknowned California prison reformer, was anything but a pushover. A strong Black judge with an exemplary record of taking tough stands on tough issues, he began his career as a lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department fighting racist violence in the South in the mid-1960s.
But Judge Henderson was no match for the Oakland police, their union, and a series of mayors who refused or were unable to hold the department accountable. In the 20 years since the agreement was signed, Oakland police behaved much as they had in the past. They have killed unarmed Black men, falsified documents to obtain search warrants from local judges, conducted thousands of racially motivated traffic stops, brutalized peaceful demonstrators, and made a mockery of internal affairs programs purportedly designed to identify and rectify improper officer conduct.
The settlement agreement in Allen v. City of Oakland was the result of the Riders scandal, systemic misconduct by a dozen or so rogue cops who terrified petty criminals and innocent Black men in West Oakland. The Riders stopped, planted drugs on, arrested, kidnapped, and beat young Black men selling drugs or who simply met an alleged “profile of drug dealers.” And they bragged about it.
The lead Rider actor in Oakland’s tough-on-crime drama was Mayor Jerry Brown, whose plan to rise again as California’s governor began with hosting a radio show on Berkeley’s left-wing KPFA Radio. Brown’s radio persona paved the way for his election as Oakland’s mayor in 1998, where he soon made a radical pivot to become a firm champion of law and order. One of his first acts as mayor was to fire Chief Joe Samuels, a committed Black leader hired to implement a comprehensive community policing program passed by the Oakland City Council and Mayor Elihu Harris in 1996. Brown replaced Samuels with another Black chief, Richard Word, who was younger, less experienced and a patently weaker leader than Samuels. But, as Brown said, Word was “our guy.”
Brown collaborated with his New York City counterpart, Rudy Giuliani, who encouraged Brown to reject community policing, criticized by hardliners for bringing a social work approach to policing. Giuliani also poisoned Brown’s attitude towards Rudy Crew, the nationally acclaimed education reformer Giuliani ousted from his role as Chancellor of the New York City public school system. Crew had family members on the west coast and signaled his willingness to become the superintendent of the Oakland school system, a prospect that delighted members of the school board, including myself. But just a few days before Crew was scheduled to meet with the OUSD Board, Brown called Crew and told him that he would not be welcome in Oakland.
Brown’s OPD continued its pattern of brutalizing protestors, attacking an anti-Iraq War demonstration at the Port of Oakland on April 7, 2003. The cops used shotgun-fired wooden bullets, gas, and batons on the peaceful crowd of longshore union members and community activists. Some used their Harley-Davidson motorcycles to “bump” protestors.
When some of the Riders faced trial for their violent misdeeds, their defense emphasized that they were just following Brown’s orders. They were never convicted, while Brown rode his reputation as the man who fought violent crime in Oakland to be elected attorney general and then governor.
Brown was succeeded as mayor in 2007 by the progressive icon Ron Dellums, who had a distinguished tenure in Congress after his 1970 election as the anti-Vietnam War alternative to establishment Democrat Jeffrey Cohelan. While in Congress, Dellums helped end apartheid in South Africa and was one of the first to promote subsidized health care for all. But his heart was never in the day-by-day grind of leading a medium-sized American city.
Dellums championed progressive approaches to city issues but rarely dug into the details. Police continued to kill unarmed Black men. When the city exploded over the murder of Oscar Grant, returning with friends from a New Year’s celebration in San Francisco, by a Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) cop early in the morning of Jan. 1, 2009, Dellums was surprised when protestors scorned his promise to rein in the police if they stopped breaking windows. A few months later, the apparently leaderless OPD botched its response to the murder of two officers by Lovelle Mixon, a 26-year old Oakland resident who shot and killed four police officers in 2009, by rushing to raid the apartment where he was holed up and losing two more officers in the process.
Dellums appointed Anthony Batts to take over OPD, and soon Batts and City Attorney John Russo were seeking gang injunctions in a poorly thought out and ineffective anti-crime offensive. The injunctions banned targeted individuals from gathering or even visiting certain neighborhoods and gave the police new opportunities to racially profile people they thought might be gang members. The chief criteria for identifying potential gang members were age and skin color – Black youth in North Oakland and Latinos in the Fruitvale area of East Oakland. Protests and litigation soon ended this effort, and Russo left Oakland and abandoned plans to climb the political ladder.
OPD was still out of control in July 2010, when protestors filled Oakland’s downtown to protest the two-year sentence given to BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant. Hundreds of demonstrators, most of them nonviolent, were brutalized and arrested.
Jean Quan, a former radical student activist at UC Berkeley and longstanding member of Oakland’s progressive political faction, succeeded Dellums as mayor in 2011. Quan promised to reform OPD and meet the requirements of the 2003 settlement agreement, but she was soon overtaken by her allegiance to City Hall insiders, particularly Deanna Santana, the City Administrator appointed by Quan, and Police Chief Howard Jordan. Quan embodied the ambivalence many Oaklanders felt about the department. She spoke about eliminating racial profiling, brutality, and dishonesty, and said she preferred community policing and violence prevention programs over traditional policing. But she also caved in to demands to grow the department to as many as 1,000 officers.
Occupy Oakland was Quan’s undoing. A large, unruly encampment filled what became known as Oscar Grant Plaza in front of the Oakland City Hall. Echoing Occupy Wall Street’s anti-corporate demands and linking them to local issues including housing, police abuse, gang injunctions, and threats of curfews, Occupy Oakland was supported by most of Quan’s political base. But inside City Hall, City Administrator Santana and Police Chief Jordan argued for its removal, a call amplified by some local merchants and fanned by a small number of violent acts on the camp’s perimeter.
On Oct. 24, 2011, at 4:30 A.M., while Quan was out of town, OPD and 200 officers from 14 other agencies raided the camp. They arrested more than 100 people and destroyed their tents, clothes, and other belongings. Santana and Jordan crowed about their “success,” failing to see that they had uncorked the genie.
Hundreds of Occupy supporters gathered in downtown Oakland, beginning a week of protests met with fierce violence by OPD. Among those severely injured was Marine veteran Scott Olsen, shot in the head with a “non-lethal” shotgun round filled with birdshot. Many of the same officers who had brutalized protestors at the 2003 anti-war protest at the Port of Oakland led the violence against the Occupy movement.
Police violence reinvigorated the movement. The camp at City Hall was resurrected. On Nov. 2, 2011, hundreds of thousands of nonviolent protestors, the largest crowd ever seen in Oakland, marched from downtown Oakland to the Port. Santana and Jordan rejected demands for the punishment of officers involved in the police riot, but outside pressure and the efforts of the court monitor led to the firing of two officers and the punishment of 42 others.
Quan’s role in the Occupy debacle ended her political career. In the 2014 election, she was defeated in a crowded field by City Council Member Libby Schaaf, Jerry Brown’s former aide, who received his backing. Sean Whent, whom Quan had appointed as chief in 2013 under pressure from the court monitor, remained under Schaaf. Whent had brought some measure of change to OPD, insisting on the punishment of officers who violated people’s rights.
By 2015, court monitor Robert Warshaw was praising Whent and OPD, forecasting an early end to court oversight. But Whent was soon undone by OPD’s chronic failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct. This time it was a sexual abuse scandal involving up to a dozen officers, including some from other departments, and the daughter of a civilian OPD employee. Some of the incidents involving the young woman occurred when she was under 18 years of age.
Another court-appointed investigator concluded that OPD officials had completely mismanaged the sexual abuse scandal, typically blaming the victim while ignoring the misconduct of multiple officers. Worse yet, this was not the first case where OPD’s failure to discipline officers involved in sexual misconduct. Officers were disciplined only after the court investigation, and Whent resigned on June 9, 2016. Within the next week, two others whom Schaaf appointed as chief resigned.
Schaaf’s next pick was Anne Kirkpatrick, OPD’s first female chief and a veteran of several big city departments, including Chicago’s. Kirkpatrick, OPD’s ninth chief since court oversight began, turned out to be one of the most clueless. Many of her choices for her command staff had been implicated in the sex abuse scandal. Demonstrating her failure to understand Oakland’s political identity, she got herself into trouble by facilitating an ICE raid that led to the arrest of two men while violating Oakland’s sanctuary city policy. She then was caught falsely claiming that the two arrestees were involved in human trafficking.
Chief Kirkpatrick soon demonstrated her unwillingness to discipline officers involved in the misuse of force, particularly in the killing of Joshua Pawlik, who was shot when he awoke after being passed out in an alley with a gun in his hand. Kirkpatrick declined to accept even the Department’s minimal recommendations to discipline a few of those involved in the incident.
Pawlik’s killing was soon followed by the disclosure that as many as hundreds of officers were involved in a massive effort to suppress required reporting of the use of force. Kirkpatrick signed her own termination letter when she told Judge William H. Orrick III, who had inherited Henderson’s oversight role upon his retirement, that the judge was wrong when he observed that OPD was backsliding on its reform efforts. Mayor Schaaf and the newly created Police Commission fired her on Feb. 20, 2020.
Schaaf appointed Susan Manheimer as interim chief. She led the department while officers engaged in excessive force against people protesting the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. She was followed by Chief Armstrong, who got off to a strong start, apologizing for the misuse of force during the Floyd protests and disciplining 33 officers for their roles. For many, it seemed like OPD finally had a chief who would hold officers accountable. But that ended when Armstrong was fired for failing to punish a subordinate involved in a hit and run accident and later firing his service weapon inside an elevator at OPD headquarters.
Winston and Bondgraham suggest that OPD may finally overcome its history, pointing out the incremental progress made in meeting the requirements of the consent decree. I disagree that focusing on the efforts of civil rights lawyers, police chiefs, politicians, and well-intentioned officers justifies the conclusion that OPD or any other city police department in the United States can truly be reformed in 2023.
Police are tasked with an impossible job, trying to clean up the problems created by a society based on racism and income inequality. From their earliest days as slave catchers and later as the enforcers of corporate America’s efforts to prevent workers from creating unions and winning justice on the job, the role of the police has been to suppress efforts to right America’s wrongs.
Those wrongs continue in 2023. Income inequality has been growing since the 1980s, so that now the top 10 percent of U.S. families earn almost 14 times what the bottom 10 percent earns. One in 100 adults is in jail or prison or on probation or parole, the highest number in the whole world.
According to a report by the Institute for Research on Poverty, race, income and lack of education are the greatest predictors of incarceration. Black people are 10 times more likely than whites to be ensnared in the prison system. They make up 13.6 percent of the U.S. population and almost 40 percent of those imprisoned. By virtually every measure – income, employment, education, homelessness, and poor healthcare outcomes – Black people remain largely excluded from the benefits of American society.
The success of any society depends upon the viability of its social contract, its ability to win the loyalty and buy-in of the vast majority of its members. When discrimination and inequality naturally lead to exclusion, alienation, and resistance, “buy-in” is compelled by police force. The greater the level of exclusion, alienation, and resistance, the greater is the need for police violence and intimidation to suppress those excluded.
Until U.S. policy pivots to a model of full employment, equality, and quality education, American society’s conflicts over policing will continue. Poverty and racism are forms of violence, and only violence can suppress their victims.