Council members on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve a November ballot measure to change the city’s charter in order to create a citizen Police Commission, which will have the power to investigate and impose discipline for misconduct committed by Oakland police officers.
As the decision came down to the wire last week, the City Council was under intense behind-the-scenes pressure, negotiating with the mayor, Oakland Police Officers Association and its supporters, as well as hearing from large numbers of community members who were determined to stop the commission proposal from being watered down.
Ultimately, the measure that will be on the ballot could give Oakland the strongest police oversight it has ever had but falls short of creating a public body community members were hoping to see – a commission that is completely independent of the political influence of the mayor and City Council.
Councilmember Noel Gallo co-wrote the resolution with Councilmember Dan Kalb. Over the course of many months of negotiations, they were involved in rewriting the wording of the measure more than 30 times.
“For me establishing a police commission is the right thing to do for the City of Oakland,” said Gallo, speaking at the council meeting. “We’ve been under federal oversight for 13 years, (at a cost of) millions of dollars that you and I as taxpayers have been paying for that oversight.”
If passed in November, the seven-member commission would have extensive powers to oversee the Oakland Police Department including the ability to review and propose changes to department policies and procedures, and remove the Chief of Police with at least five commissioner votes.
The measure also would give the commission subpoena power, which means officers and other witnesses could be required to testify. The commission would replace the existing, weaker Citizens’ Police Review Board.
In the final measure that will go to the voters, four members of the commission would be appointed by a nine-member selection panel appointed by the mayor and City Council. The mayor would appoint the three remaining commission members.
Councilmember Gallo said he agreed with community members who wanted all seven of the commissions to be independent of direct political influence but said that it was not possible to win that position on the council at the present time.
Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability, who has being working on police accountability for more than 20 years, said the overwhelming sentiment of the community was in favor of a completely independent police review commission, but there was not sufficient support for that position on the council.
However, she said other parts of the measure are strong and constitute a victory for the community.
“It is important to understand that police commission is a measure created by charter amendment,” said Grinage. “If it passes, the council cannot eliminate it. It will require the voters to reverse it,” she said.
“The commission takes power over police discipline out of the hands of the city administrator, who is appointed by the mayor, and transfers that power over to Oakland residents, who are volunteers,” she said. “That is the central piece.”
Grinage agreed with those who say the commission is not strong enough. “There is no perfect solution that can be achieved in a single pen stroke,” she said. “There will have to be a sustained effort for a series of changes. This is an important first step.”
During the debate over the measure at the council meeting, Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Desley Brooks unsuccessfully attempted to amend the proposal to remove the power of the mayor to appoint commission members.
“I received many calls and emails from people asking that the commission be entirely independent of politics, and asking that all the appointments be made by the citizen group,” Kaplan said.
Brooks criticized council members for refusing to back their amendment, saying “there has been a buy off” of the council to give the mayor the power to appoint commissioners.
Many of the speakers at the meeting blasted council members for giving the mayor so much influence.
“We do not trust the mayor to make these appointments,” said community activist Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project.
Said Rev. Ben McBride, “I am very frustrated, even with this passing and we’re glad that it’s passing – that you’ve taken the power out of the measure for community members to appoint people (so that) we can have some accountability. (Letting) the mayor appoint a civilian board is not sufficient.”
“I think we are still fundamentally misunderstanding the moment that we are in, (here) in this city,” said McBride. “We have young people of color in this city who are raped, sexually exploited and oppressed by a government that is supposed to protect them.”