OAKLAND -- A sweeping plan to overhaul oversight of Oakland's police department is heading for a City Council debate, thanks to an unlikely champion.
Councilman Noel Gallo, whose bid for office two years ago benefitted from nearly $5,000 in police union attack mailers against his main opponent, has teamed up with police critics to propose creation of a powerful citizen-run police commission.
The commission would have authority to set policy, audit police investigations, investigate citizen complaints and discipline officers.
Modeled on similarly powerful citizen commissions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the proposal would result in a much reduced role for the police department's Internal Affairs Division and would strip the city administrator's role in having the last word in discipline stemming from citizen complaints against police.
The police union has opposed previous efforts to create a commission. Sgt. Barry Donelan, the union's president, said Thursday that the commission would be another bureaucratic layer over the department that would divert funds from crime fighting and allow council members to avoid direct responsibility for dealing with public safety issues.
He also said he was "shocked and disappointed" at Gallo for introducing it. "It's very clear to me that this is a political ploy by Councilmember Gallo to abdicate his responsibility for public safety."
Gallo said Thursday that he might not actually support the commission proposal should it come to a vote, but that he felt compelled to initiate a debate after talking to citizen groups including a local NAACP chapter that supported it.
"I love the police union," he said. "But I told them my job is to represent my neighbors and the citizens of Oakland."
Oakland currently has a board that hears citizen complaints about police, but it can only recommend discipline to be meted out by the city administrator.
"That is not adequate oversight," said Rashidah Grinage of the community group PUEBLO, which last pushed for a police commission in 2012. "We need to take the power to discipline officers away from the person who manages them."
The 12-member commission as envisioned by Grinage would be selected by the mayor and council members and have far more than just the power to investigate complaints and discipline officers. It would be able to hold hearings on controversial initiatives such as gang injunctions, review Internal Affairs investigations, and recommend the firing of the police chief. It would also preclude officers fired for misconduct from going to a civil service board to get their job back, she said.
Grinage said that she has briefed Oakland's federal police overseer, Robert Warshaw, on the proposal, and that he was "fully supportive."
The last push for a police commission died quickly from lack of City Council support -- and the latest attempt also faces long odds.
Creation of the commission would require the council to place an initiative on the November ballot asking voters to amend the City Charter. On Thursday, the council's Rules Committee agreed to schedule debate in the council's Public Safety Committee later this month, but only as an informational item. That designation would preclude the committee from immediately recommending that the full council take up the proposal, making it impossible for it to get approval in time to make it onto the November ballot.
Gallo said he would try next week to change the designation, but two of the Rules Committee's four members oppose it in part because they feel more time would be needed to adequately review the plan.
Gallo's sponsoring of a police commission plan cemented his reputation as the council's most unpredictable maverick. Last year, he forced the council's Public Safety Committee to debate the hot-button issue of youth curfews, which he supported and his newfound allies opposed.
Grinage said the coalition proposing the police commission decided to ask Gallo to sponsor it because he chairs the Public Safety Committee, but they didn't expect much support.
"There were people who started laughing. 'No way. He's never going to do this,'" Grinage said. "But we asked him, and he agreed. And we were all kind of like, really?"
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.