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Mayor wants to bar police commission from chief search

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At every step, the process of finding Oakland’s new police chief was fraught with political tensions between the city’s police commission, which shortlisted the job candidates, and Mayor Sheng Thao, who made the final call in hiring the city’s top cop.

Those relations may become only more strained by the mayor’s next move.

Thao, fresh off selecting Kansas City native Floyd Mitchell as Oakland’s new chief, now plans to pursue a change to the city’s charter that would prevent the volunteer-led police commission from participating in any future police chief search — leaving that authority exclusively to the mayor and city administrator.

The amendment will need to be approved by the city’s voters, and if successful it would curb one of the most significant responsibilities held by one of the country’s most powerful civilian-led police oversight bodies.

After a grueling hiring process, Thao said in an interview she’s prepared to bring the issue to a head in the upcoming November election.

“We were mandated to follow this process under the city charter,” she said of the job search that led to Mitchell’s hiring. “I didn’t think it was the most effective way to get the new police chief.”

New Oakland police Chief Floyd Mitchell takes questions from the media during his introductory press conference at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
New Oakland police Chief Floyd Mitchell takes questions from the media during his introductory press conference at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

The new ballot initiative would be an amendment to Measure LL, which voters overwhelmingly supported in 2016. Its passage handed unprecedented power over to civilians, giving the commission the ability to both fire the chief with cause and finalize up to four candidates for the mayor to choose from to hire a new one.

Voters increased the commission’s power in 2020, under the hope that the group could soon become the primary source of outside accountability for the Oakland Police Department.

Several years and multiple cop scandals later, a federal judge still has yet to free OPD from the oversight of a federal monitor, leaving the commission to work within multiple layers of bureaucracy.

It has been a bumpy road: the commission received criticism for firing Chief Anne Kirkpatrick in 2020 with then-Mayor Libby Schaaf’s approval, while tensions have bubbled for a year between commissioners and Thao, beginning with Thao’s decision to fire Chief LeRonne Armstrong.

The commission opposed Armstrong’s termination so strongly that it included the former chief in an initial shortlist of four candidates presented to Thao’s office — leading her representatives to suggest the list wasn’t intended to be serious. That rejected all four, starting the process over.

Regina Jackson, the longest-serving police commissioner and the current chair emeritus, said Armstrong’s inclusion was intended to change the mayor’s mind about her vow not to rehire him. Being excluded from the next chief search, Jackson said, would be a disastrous blow to the commission’s authority.

“Oakland has the strongest police commission in the country,” Jackson said in an interview. “It would seem she wants to significantly strip the commission of its powers.”

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 20: Oakland Police Commissioner Regina Jackson reads a statement during a press conference after the Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was fired during a closed session at the Oakland City Hall Council Chamber in Oakland Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. The Oakland Police Commission unanimously voted to request Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to fire police chief Kirkpatrick who wasn't in the meeting Thursday night. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
OAKLAND, CA – FEBRUARY 20: Oakland Police Commissioner Regina Jackson reads a statement during a press conference after the Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was fired during a closed session at the Oakland City Hall Council Chamber in Oakland Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

In interviews following the mayor’s promise to pursue a November ballot initiative, her representatives insisted the situation was not quite so dramatic.

“It’s important we frame the goals here not as political factions fighting over powers,” said Leigh Hanson, the mayor’s chief of staff, adding that the intent of the measure would be to “focus the attention and time of our volunteer commissioners on the oversight of policy.”

That the commissioners are volunteers makes their ability to openly clash with public officials so unique.

Last month, the commission held a public forum featuring Mitchell and three other finalists for the chief job — an event that Thao openly criticized, saying it would compromise the search by discouraging candidates who didn’t want to pursue the job out in the open. But the mayor also could not prevent the forum from taking place.

At a meeting Thursday, Jackson and other commissioners lambasted the new head of the Community Police Review Agency, which now investigates all complaints against OPD officers, for not yet having developed a clear hiring plan for staff in that office.

The agency’s director, Mac Muir, has the ability to sustain discipline against anyone in the department besides the chief. He also answers to the commission.

This is all according to plan, said Rashidah Grinage, a local police accountability advocate instrumental to the commission’s founding.

Should the mayor move against the commission now, Grinage warned, it could undermine public trust that civilians can hold the cops accountable without bureaucratic input.

“To take one incident or experience and say, ‘This is a structural problem that needs to be changed’ — that is unwarranted,” Grinage said, referring to Thao’s recent clashes with the commission. “I understand she was frustrated, but there is not sufficient basis to go before voters without a deeper analysis.”



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