Looking for a silver lining in the Oscar Grant killing is tough. But for advocates of police accountability, the incident presented an opportunity.
The grassroots nonprofit group People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO) has been trying to strengthen Oakland's Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB) for more than a decade. "We've been helped, sadly, through this tragedy of Oscar Grant," said Rashidah Grinage, PUEBLO's director. "The thirst and the call for independent oversight of BART has, I think, added credibility to our demand for the same thing in Oakland."
But despite ostensible support from the public and all the key players in city government, the thirst for reform may run dry before effective oversight can be put in place. Oakland's budget crisis seems likely to derail the effort just as its supporters hope to take their recommendations before Oakland's city council.
In 2005, PUEBLO, the CPRB, and the police designed a survey to ask Oaklanders about their experiences with the police department. Based on that survey, the mayor's police issues task force came up with a proposal to "civilianize" the department's Internal Affairs function. This would be accomplished by moving primary responsibility for investigating complaints to the police review board, which can recommend disciplinary actions anonymously and which in 2008 sustained three complaints out of 74 received. Since then, the proposal has slowly been working its way toward the city council.
"Overtly, no one is standing in the way," Grinage said. "We have public acknowledgment and support from every city councilperson, from the mayor, from the city administrator, from the Oakland Police Department, from internal affairs, from the CPRB. So no one is openly saying this is a bad idea."
But at an annual cost of $1.2 million, the expanded board would cost more than twice as much as it currently does. The change in structure could actually save the city money after three years, since civilian investigators will be paid less than the 24 sworn officers who currently staff internal affairs. Yet with Oakland's current budget crisis, savings three years down the line may not be enough. Councilmember Jean Quan, who chairs the council's budget committee, says that although she supports civilianization, it will have to be done a few staffers at a time.
"We just don't have the money," Quan said. "At a time when we're cutting $80 million ... even putting in a few positions is not so easy."
The police review board is scheduled to present a revised plan to the city council's Public Safety Committee on June 23. "That's when you'll see the fireworks," said Patrick Caceres, the board's policy analyst and outreach coordinator. "I think that the odds are against us. ... I can't say what people's true motives are. They certainly say one thing and their actions don't always necessarily support their words."
It could be a do-or-die situation for the proposal. If it gets sent back for further revisions, it likely won't get written into Oakland's 2009-2011 budget, which is due July 1. "We are racing the clock," Grinage said. "If we don't get that in the 2009 budget, we are dead in the water."
The proposal on the table would give the review board ten full-time investigators, although Caceres said twice as many are needed. While the original plan was for the board to take over most stages of investigation, it has been reduced to simply first documenting complaints. But even that, Caceres said, would be an important "beginning step," since the initial interviews are where the core facts of each complaint are often established.
The review board currently has three investigators, but one is on leave, staffing that Grinage calls "less than skeletal." That means there are two investigators charged to handle the roughly eighty complaints per year that come directly to the board, and there is no time to delve into the more than 1,100 complaints registered annually with Internal Affairs.
"If there was a slew of complaints that suddenly sprung up, we would be debilitated," said Caceres of the police review board. "We would not be able to manage the workload."
Caceres believes it is important for the CPRB to get first crack at new cases, which now often don't come to its attention until the one year statute of limitations on police disciplinary actions is nearing, or already passed. "We cannot even fathom what kind of real benefit that it can have to choose those cases that are the most severe, the most serious," Caceres said. "It could also have a tremendous impact on the ability to identify officers that have behavioral problems or continual issues of misconduct."
In 2008, the police department's Internal Affairs Division received 1,156 complaints about officers. While the Citizens Police Review Board legally can look into those incidents, it doesn't have the manpower to do so. The board currently has at least three vacancies, and recently had a full-time investigator and administrative staff person cut.
To make matters worse, the mayor's proposed budget downgrades the board's executive director to an investigator. In fact, the city may already be illegally depriving the police review board of resources; a 2002 ordinance requires the board to have one investigator for every one hundred police officers. With 800 officers on the force, the board should currently have at least eight investigators, a number that's never been reached.
Because of this low staffing, Caceres said complainants sometimes wait up to nine months for their complaint to be investigated. "Or in some cases, it could be that their case goes uninvestigated, and simply be closed because of the [one year] statute of limitations." he says.
That's why Grinage was so enthused when support for the proposal was revived following the killing of Oscar Grant. Even if the civilianization effort fails, Grinage said PUEBLO is planning a 2010 ballot-initiative drive. It wants to have the power to discipline officers taken away from Oakland's city administrator, and instead given to a police commission — similar to what San Francisco has with its Office of Citizen Complaints. "The city administrator, of course, is the supervisor of the police chief," Grinage said. "So basically, it's his own folks."
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