Court-Appointed Monitor Who Oversees Oakland Police Department Could Have Blocked Controversial Promotions — but He Didn’t. 

Robert Warshaw has the power to demote high-ranking officers and even fire the police chief.

click to enlarge Robert Warshaw speaking at a community forum in Oakland in 2016. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Robert Warshaw speaking at a community forum in Oakland in 2016.

Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick has declined to reconsider her controversial decision to promote two high-ranking officers who mishandled the department’s internal investigation of the Celeste Guap sex-crimes scandal, despite requests by civil-rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin that they and others face disciplinary action.

But there’s one powerful person who could immediately block the promotions and take other steps to hold officers accountable — but has yet to do so. Robert Warshaw, former chief of police in Rochester, New York, has been Oakland’s court-appointed police monitor since 2013. He also holds the title of compliance director, and has expansive powers over the department.

Under a 2012 order by Judge Thelton Henderson, Warshaw has the authority to direct the city to deny promotions, alter assignments, and make other personnel changes if he believes they’re necessary to ensure reforms take root.

He can also discipline or demote the department’s deputy chiefs and assistant police chief if they’re responsible for violating policy, or if they refuse to implement the terms of the court-ordered reform program.

He can even fire the police chief.

But so far, Warshaw hasn’t taken any meaningful action on the mishandling of the Guap investigation.

“What role Warshaw is playing here is mysterious to me,” said Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, which successfully pushed for the creation of Oakland’s new citizens police commission.

The promotions, which were announced in early May, included the elevation of Deputy Chief John Lois to the rank of assistant police chief, and Lt. Roland Holmgren to the rank of captain in charge of the criminal-investigation division.

In 2015, Lois and Holmgren directly oversaw the brief criminal investigation of several cops accused of raping and exploiting Guap when she was a teenager.
Attorneys Edward Swanson and Audrey Barron investigated OPD’s mishandling of the Guap case for Henderson and found the department’s actions “wholly inadequate.” The attorneys pointed out violations of the negotiated-settlement agreement, as well as questionable decisions made by Lois, Holmgren, and Capt. Kirk Coleman that resulted in the case’s premature closure. The officers also failed to notify other city officials, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, about the allegations.

Kirkpatrick also appears to have no intention to remove Coleman from his position as head of internal affairs. Swanson and Barron found that, when Coleman led the criminal-investigation division in 2015, he violated the negotiated-settlement agreement by not notifying the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office of suspected crimes by OPD officers.

If Warshaw wanted to, he could immediately suspend Lois, or demote him back to the rank of deputy chief.

Under the terms of a 2012 order issued by Henderson, Warshaw also has the power to “direct specific actions by the City or OPD,” in matters concerning promotions and assignments of officers like Holmgren and Coleman.
Swanson and Barron’s report was released in June, after Kirkpatrick announced the promotions, which were approved by Warshaw. It appears that neither Kirkpatrick nor Warshaw knew about Lois, Holmgren, Coleman, and other senior officers’ failures before Kirkpatrick announced their promotions. Swanson and Barron reported directly to Henderson — not Warshaw.

There is precedent for the compliance director asserting such power over the police department. In 2013, the East Bay Times and the Express reported that OPD Chief Howard Jordan resigned after learning that Thomas Frazier, Warshaw’s predecessor as compliance director, intended to fire him. Frazier had issued scathing reports about OPD command staff’s inability to discipline officers, particularly the widespread use of excessive force during Occupy Oakland.

After the report’s release, during a July 10 court hearing, Chanin and Burris asked Henderson to force the city to identify all of the officers referred to in the report and impose discipline on them if they violated a city policy or any portion of the court-reform program.

Henderson declined to grant this request, but has asked the city to conduct its own “critical incident review.”

Nothing, however, appears to be tying Warshaw’s hands. But even now that he has the information contained in the Swanson-Barron report, including a complete list of who committed what policy violations, Warshaw hasn’t moved to block the promotions or demand other personnel changes, according to sources close to the department.

Sokhom Mao, who formerly chaired Oakland’s Citizen Police Review Board and has followed the department’s recent troubles, said that there appears to be an unwillingness to reverse the decisions even in light of the new information.

“We really need someone who is going to put their foot down on some of these reforms and make sure they’re implemented,” he said.

“I think he produced really good work since being compliance director,” Mao said about Warshaw. “But since [the sex crimes scandal], I don’t know if he’s really committed to the work anymore.”

Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said she and her colleagues have not been briefed by Kirkpatrick or City Administrator Sabrina Landreth about why the promotions are being upheld. She also said Warshaw hasn’t filled the council in on his plans.

“It’s odd to me that there hasn’t been some action from him regarding the promotions of the people referred to in the court’s report,” Kaplan said of Warshaw. “That’s a concern, but I don’t yet know anything about what they’re doing.”

Kaplan said the apparent unwillingness of anyone to hold OPD brass accountable reflects a longstanding problem, whereby low-ranking officers are punished and their supervisors are not.

“There’s a systemic problem that the highest-ranked people don’t get held accountable,” she said. “As long as that continues, people don’t take serious the promise of reform.”

Kirkpatrick said at a July 10 press conference that Warshaw approved the promotions of Lois and Holmgren. In response to an email, OPD media spokesperson Officer Johnna Watson wrote that “Chief Kirkpatrick undertook a great deal of due diligence, both before and after the Swanson Barron report. Having sought input from many stakeholders, both inside and outside of the Department, and having made her own personal assessments, she stands by her promotions.”

Warshaw did not return a phone call seeking comment for this report.

This isn’t the first time members of Oakland’s City Council have questioned Warshaw’s role in overseeing OPD’s reform effort. In January, Councilmember Desley Brooks said the council wasn’t getting any information about whether or not Warshaw was actually fulfilling his duties. “We’re just being asked to reauthorize and reauthorize these contracts,” she said about an agreement to pay Warshaw.

The council briefly delayed renewal of Warshaw’s $887,076 contracts, but was reprimanded by Henderson in a January 19 order.

But even Henderson, who is set to retire next month, has been criticized for what police-accountability activists perceive as an unwillingness to do what’s necessary to change OPD.

“I don’t understand why Henderson has been so incredibly lenient in the face of these inexcusable violations,” Grinage said of the judge’s orders following this month’s court hearing. “I don’t know why the city shouldn’t have been cited long ago for contempt of court.”


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