Why the OPD is approaching a federal takeover

Jul 17, 2012

Last Month, the Oakland city council voted to pay $40,000 in punitive damages for an officer who illegally strip searched two suspects in public. Federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who currently oversees the department as they make court-ordered reforms, referred to the strip-searching case as an example of how stuck the OPD is in their dysfunctional behavior.

“Yet you are going to pay, on this officer’s behalf, punitive damages,” said community activist Rashida Grinage at the June 19th city council meeting. “And you wonder why the OPD doesn’t change, doesn’t reform – you guys are the enablers of this.”

That’s the latest in a string of incidents that have been getting the department closer and closer to a federal takeover. But to understand how the OPD got to where it is today, you have to go back to the 1990s.

Between 1995 and 2000, Oakland averaged just below 7,000 violent crimes per year, making it the most dangerous small city in California. Then Mayor Jerry Brown was promising to slash that number by 20 percent, saying in his 1998 inaugural address that he would punish even the smallest crimes to the fullest.

“I am going to support every lawful action and utilize the criminal justice system to the maximum to limit crime and criminal elements,” said Brown. “Hear this message, crime and disrespect for the rights of others won’t be tolerated, period.”

Brown’s no holds barred approach to fighting crime was welcomed by many Oakland residents, who felt besieged by the cities rampant violence. But in the police department it had some unintended consequences.

“The community was desperate and they really wanted a police department to do something,” says civil rights attorney Jim Chanin. What they did was adopt a “by any means necessary” approach to policing. “And this behavior took care of crime, so people just let it go down.”

It was in this atmosphere where four Oakland narcotics officers – Francisco Vasquez, Jude Siapno, Mathew Hornung, and Clarence Mabanag – climbed the ranks. They called themselves “Riders.”

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the “Riders” patrolled the flatlands West Oakland, where they became notorious for stopping ex-convicts and planting drugs on them. “The idea was, this is a bad person, they are on probation, they’re on parole, they’ve been convicted before, so let’s dispense with the niceties and just plant the evidence on them and get it over with,” says Chanin.

The “Riders” were praised for their high arrest numbers and aggressive policing.  One of them, Francisco Vasquez, was even named Officer of the Year in 2000. “And that was because all they cared about was he was putting people in jail,” says Chanin. “Whether they deserved to be in jail, that was something they didn’t care about.”

Between 1992 and 2000, the four officers had accumulated over $500,000 in lawsuits. One woman was beaten so badly that her knees and elbows became disjointed. That cost Oakland $3,000. Another case involved a young man drinking a bottle of water in his car.  Out of nowhere, his door flung open and he was choked with a police baton. That blunder cost the city $25,000. These incidents were just the tip of the iceberg.

“They were known to be bad apples,” says Rashida Grinage, director of the multi purpose community group PUEBLO. “Yet they were never punished.”

Until the year 2000, when rookie officer Keith Batts blew the whistle. Batts had shadowed the Riders during his training and he saw them beat and frame numerous people. After two weeks on the force, he reported the abuse.

Batts declined to be interviewed for this story, but attorney Jim Chanin says his testimony paved the way for over 100 plaintiffs to come forward, accusing the four officers of kidnapping, conspiracy, assault with a deadly weapon, and false imprisonment. In total, “the plaintiffs served 40 years for crimes they had never committed,” says Chanin.

In the face of such serious accusation, the ringleader Francisco Vasquez fled the country. He’s still considered armed and dangerous by the FBI, and there is a $20,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. The other three officers were immediately fired from the force, but after a three-year court battle they were acquitted of criminal charges.

“They really were not sentenced in the way any of us would have been sentenced had we engaged in the same behavior,” says Grinage. “We’re talking about assault, we’re talking about kidnapping, we’re talking about planting evidence. All of these are felonies.”

The plaintiffs did win an $11 million settlement, which came out of Oakland’s coffers. And more civil cases emerged, implicating 21 other officers who were accused of similar abuses. Deputy Chief Sean Whent has been on the force for 16 years and he remembers how the scandal left a black eye on the department.

“You know, granted it’s a few officers that are involved in something like that, but it reflects on all of us, and that’s disturbing,” says Whent.

When the magnitude of the problem became apparent, civil rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin decided that the solution had to be equal in scope.

“I saw an opportunity, along with Jim Chanin, to really take on these issues of a culture within a department,” says Burris, who represented the plaintiffs. “Because at the end of the day it’s the culture that perpetuates a certain style of policing and unless you can attack that culture and change that culture, you ultimately do not change how that department does business.”

The two attorneys co-wrote what’s known as “the negotiated settlement agreement.” It was designed as a five-year, 51-point plan. Once completed, it promised to be a fresh start for the force and the community. No one thought it would be easy, but changing the heart of the department would prove harder than anyone had imagined.

Tune in to Crosscurrents tomorrow at 5pm on 91.7FM to hear the second part of this story piece. Joaquin Palomino will look at what has happened in the nine years since the Oakland Police Department signed the landmark agreement to clean up its act.