OAKLAND -- A federal judge with sweeping power over Oakland's police department ordered an investigation Thursday into why the city consistently loses arbitration cases with officers who are appealing discipline.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson wrote that an arbitrator's recent decision overturning the termination of an officer videotaped tossing a tear gas grenade into a crowd of Occupy Oakland protesters struck at the heart of a reform drive that he has overseen for more than a decade.
"Just like any failure to impose appropriate discipline by the (police) chief or city administrator, any reversal of appropriate discipline at arbitration undermines the very objectives of the (reform program)," Henderson wrote.
City Attorney Barbara Parker, whose office handles arbitrations, said she needed to study the judge's order before commenting.
Oakland agreed to a court-sanctioned reform effort in 2003 following the Riders police brutality scandal in which four officers were accused of beating up and framing drug suspects in West Oakland.
Just last month, the department's court-appointed federal monitor Robert Warshaw reported that the city was closer than ever to completing the reforms which are designed to improve officer accountability. But the arbitrator's reinstatement of Officer Robert Roche last month could prove to be a big setback.
Henderson wrote that Oakland can no longer be considered compliant with two reform tasks dealing with police internal affairs investigations and the consistency of officer discipline if its internal investigations are inadequate and discipline is frequently overturned.
Of the last 15 arbitration cases in which officers have appealed punishments, those punishments have been revoked in seven cases and reduced in five others dating back two years. The city prevailed in only three cases.
Henderson's order gives Warshaw wide latitude and a blank check to study every facet of the police department's investigation of officers and how the City Attorney's office prepares arbitration cases.
Warshaw, whose consulting firms already charge the city more than $1 million a year, now has authority to hire consultants to undertake the review, with the city footing the bill.
The investigation will include a review into whether the city is getting adequate legal representation for arbitration hearings, whether it is selecting qualified expert witnesses and whether it should change the process for selecting arbitrators. It will also investigate the police department's discipline process, which officers have held is biased against them.
Sgt. Barry Donelan, who heads the police union, said he had no objections to the court order. "There are huge problems with the discipline regime at the Oakland Police Department," he said. "And a review of it by the court is probably long overdue."
Interim City Administrator Henry Gardner said the city will follow the judge's order and that he will take a closer look at the city's arbitration record. "We want the same results as the judge wants," Gardner said. "That our officers are behaving properly and within the scope of their authority."
Roche's reinstatement was perhaps the city's highest-profile arbitration. The officer became a lightning rod over police handling of the 2011 Occupy protests when he was caught on camera tossing the tear gas grenade into a crowd of protesters trying to assist Iraq War Veteran Scott Olsen. Arbitrator David Stiteler determined that the officer was following an order, according to Roche's attorney.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.