The Ultimate Backup 

Michael Rains has been defending Oakland cops for more than twenty years, but the case of the OPD's notorious "Riders" has given him his greatest challenge to date: proving that his clients were just doing their job.

Oakland's ugliest attributes have a way of infecting other cities. Take, for example, the events of June 4, 1995. On that night, in what has been described as San Francisco's worst police violence scandal in decades, twelve officers beat, kicked, and pepper-sprayed a man named Aaron Williams, who died in custody thirty minutes later. More than a dozen witnesses described a scene of appalling brutality, in which cops repeatedly kicked a handcuffed Williams as he lay in a pool of blood. Medical Examiner Boyd Stephens later determined that a bruise on Williams' cheek matched a shoe worn by one of the officers present, Marc Andaya. Stephens concluded that Andaya, who was to become the public face of police misconduct for the next two years, may have kicked Williams so hard that he left the imprint of his boot's tread on the man's face.

Marc Andaya learned how to be a cop in Oakland. Before transferring to San Francisco in 1994, he had compiled a remarkable litany of misconduct complaints and lawsuits in his eleven years in the Oakland Police Department. In 1984, he shot a man nine times, stopping to reload his service revolver in the process. In 1985, he was issued a thirty-day suspension for lifting a handcuffed suspect off the ground, choking him, and threatening to kill him. In 1991, a man named Joseph Martinez sued the city, claiming that Andaya broke four of his ribs, blackened both of his eyes, and chipped several of his teeth during a "beat down" outside an East Oakland bar. Captain Edward Smith of the OPD once reported that Andaya had rattled a roomful of rookies by putting an empty gun to his head and repeatedly pulling the trigger.

Clearly, Marc Andaya is an aberration, but his behavior, however obscene, was forged in a crucible of violence. During the years Andaya cruised its streets, Oakland was a really tough town, a blue-collar, multicultural port city whose dalliance with the crack epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s left nearly two hundred men and women dead on the streets every year. Though the crack and meth mercados off Hegenberger Road still rival the worst parts of Washington, DC,and Detroit, it's undeniable that much has changed on the streets of Oakland.

Today, it's impossible to conceive of a time when the police were almost routinely called upon to deal with such grisly incidents as 1992's Bosn's Locker massacre, in which a man sprayed a crowded barroom with automatic weapons fire, killing three. In accordance with national trends, Oakland's violent crime rate has dropped sharply -- albeit from the appalling to the merely troubling -- so it's hard to understand why, in the last few years, the numbers of misconduct complaints against Oakland officers has nearly doubled, from 83 in 1998 to 154 in 2000. Police critics charge that although the terrible years of the crack plague are gone, the culture within the police department has been slow to emerge from the white-knuckled, fight-or-flight posture of the early '90s.

The numbers are particularly worrisome because of the fact that, despite paying high salaries, the OPD's turnover rate is among the highest in the state; each year, dozens of officers, having cut their teeth on some of the toughest streets in the state, move to other Bay Area cities where, presumably, they apply the lessons they have learned.

So Oakland's problems are everyone's problems. Fraught with racial tension, still struggling with drugs, gangs, and violence, and patrolled by angry, resentful officers, Oakland is the epicenter of police-community conflict in Northern California.

Is the Oakland Police Department a crew of armed cowboys, running wild on the streets with nothing to restrain its darker impulses? Or is it the Thin Blue Line, barely keeping the worst criminal element from overwhelming us? For years, local civil rights attorney John Burris has championed the former interpretation, and he's received much acclaim and renown as a result. But there's another man who has spent the last two decades passionately defending the OPD's reputation. Two months from now, Michael Rains, a cop turned police lawyer, will face his greatest challenge ever.

D efense attorneys love California's legal system. In most states, prosecutors seeking indictments in major cases are allowed to present their evidence secretly before a grand jury, where testimony is sealed. But in California, prosecutors must argue their case in a preliminary hearing, which is open to the public. Lawyers for the defense get to hear the prosecution's entire case, and even cross-examine witnesses. A preliminary hearing amounts to a dress rehearsal for the trial, and it furnishes a forum in which the defense can test strategies for destroying witness credibility and undermining the prosecutor's case.

Late last spring, one of the East Bay's most sensational preliminary hearings in decades took place in downtown Oakland's Superior Court. Prosecutors were seeking indictments of several Oakland cops who had come to be known as the "the Riders." Not since the late '60s had there been a scandal offering such compelling evidence of misconduct, brutality, and pervasive racism within the Oakland Police Department.

It all started in the summer of 2000, when a rookie Oakland patrolman named Keith Batt informed his superiors that in the two weeks he had been on the job, the four cops assigned to train him had committed a staggering array of criminal acts. Batt reported that he had watched as OPD officers Frank "Choker" Vasquez, Jude Siapno, Clarence Mabanag, and Matt Hornung beat, framed, and planted drugs on dozens of West Oakland residents, all of them young African-American men. Batt's story suggests the officers had engaged in this troubling conduct for years before he met them, and that upon his arrival they set out to teach him all of the tricks they used to falsify police reports and plant evidence. "Are you ready for the dark side," Batt said officer Jude Siapno repeatedly asked him.

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