Thelton Henderson, the federal judge who has overseen the reform of the Oakland Police Department for over a dozen years and has a long law career stemming back to the Civil Rights Movement, will be retiring later this year.
He served as a judge with the US District Court of Northern California for over 35 years and throughout his tenure presided over several landmark cases in the state.
His decisions in these cases have led to reforms in state prison health, the treatment of gay applicants seeking government jobs, and OPD’s official practices.
Now that Henderson is retiring, the future of OPD’s oversight is in question by police reform activists who are worried that the next judge may not be as committed to holding the city’s feet to the fire.
The judge’s oversight resulted from the infamous “Riders” case in 2003, when four police officers were found guilty of consistently planting evidence and making false arrests, targeting Black residents in West Oakland.
At the time, the case was seen by attorneys and civil rights activists as the tip of the iceberg reflecting a pattern of widespread police abuse in the city.
Throughout the 13 years that Henderson presided over the department’s federal oversight—the longest period of continuous federal oversight for a police department in US history—the judge regularly expressed his frustration at the slow pace of OPD’s compliance to several reforms, which it is legally obligated to undertake as part of the case’s negotiated settlement agreement.
John Burris, one of the civil rights attorneys who represented the victims in the “Riders” case, told the Post that Henderson was at times “extremely upset with (OPD) and at times outraged by their slowness and was very displeased with their commitment.”
According to Burris, the judge’s constant vigilance and hands-on approach played a large role in forcing the department to start trying to get into compliance.
“He struck fear in the department,” Burris said.
In the last five years, after Henderson motioned to place the police department in federal receivership because it had repeatedly failed to complete court-mandated reforms, the city has finally gotten serious about getting into compliance, said Burris.
“I’m hopeful that we can complete the process before he leaves, although it’s not likely,” he said.
There are still some areas where OPD is not getting close to compliance, such as the issue of racial profiling and disproportionate police stops of Black Oaklanders, said Rashidah Grinage, founder of the Coalition for Police Accountability.
Grinage told the Post that originally the police department was supposed to have completed its reforms by 2008 and then was given an extension until 2014.
“Based on the fact that this is the longest standing oversight in the country, it’s hard to conclude anything other than the fact that there must have been clear obstruction by members of OPD” to make reforms happen, she said.
Henderson will also be remembered for becoming the first Black judge to serve in the US Justice Department on voting rights cases in the South.
He was ultimately forced to resign from this position after lending his rental car to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was traveling from Birmingham to Selma, which drew criticism that he was taking sides on civil rights issues.
Tulio Ospina is the assistant editor of the Oakland Post and editor-in-chief of El Mundo.