OAKLAND -- A politically connected community group is pitching a proposal that members say will improve oversight of Oakland's embattled police department and dissuade a judge from placing it under federal control.
The group, which includes both longtime critics and supporters of the department, has been lobbying council members for weeks to support a citizen-run police commission with powers to set department policy, audit police investigations and -- if the police union will agree to it -- discipline officers.
"If the city shows it's really quite serious about police misconduct, it might convince the judge to relent and not punish the police force," said Don Link, a commission advocate and longtime community policing leader.
Many major cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have independent police commissions, but so far an Oakland commission hasn't gotten much traction.
Council members have reacted coolly to the plan, the police union is opposed, and Oakland's top administrators say the city is already implementing reforms.
"There is just so much going on with our police department, it just doesn't seem like the type of change we should rush into," Councilwoman Libby Schaaf said.
This is a pivotal year for Oakland's understaffed police department. A recent city-commissioned report blasted its handling of the first major Occupy Oakland protest and questioned its ability to properly investigate officer misconduct charges.
Later this year, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson is scheduled to consider stripping city control of the department, which has failed for nine years to fully implement reforms spelled out in a court order that settled the Riders police misconduct case.
"We think the commission is a potential game-changer for how residents and the judge look at the Oakland Police Department," police commission supporter Pamela Drake said.
Drake and other supporters envision a seven-member commission with appointments made by both the mayor and the City Council. The commission would have authority over the Office of Inspector General, which audits internal police department investigations, and the Citizens Police Review Board, which investigates complaints against police.
The commission wouldn't have the authority to hire and fire police chiefs, but it could recommend that the mayor fire a chief. Perhaps, most importantly, it would be able to hold hearings and set department policy on major issues, such as gang injunctions and internal affairs investigations.
"That's what's missing in Oakland right now," said commission advocate and department critic Rashidah Grinage. "That's why there's never any progress on these things. There's never been a sustained focus investigating any of these things."
The commission would not initially have the power to discipline officers because of safeguards in the union contract, Grinage said.
Police union President Barry Donelan called the commission unnecessary because Oakland already has a civilian complaints board, an inspector general, a federal judge and an independent monitoring overseeing the police department.
"I think you have all the regulation you need," he said. "Why would Oakland use its scarce resources on another regulatory body rather than fighting crime?"
Police commissions vary greatly in terms of power and usefulness, said Frank Zimring a criminologist and professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He said a well-run commission could help provide Oakland with needed expertise, but feared that such a panel could add to an already-muddled oversight program.
"There are not a lot of straight lines in the governance of Oakland police at this point," he said. "It's unclear to me that a commission structure would be a way of straightening things out instead of tying another knot in what is already a pretty convoluted process."
Mayor Jean Quan, who counts several of the commission advocates as political supporters, recently proposed several police reforms that stopped short of establishing a commission. Her budget proposes civilianizing the Office of Inspector General and making the civilian review board, rather than the department's Internal Affairs unit, responsible for intake of complaints.
She also is proposing an outside review of department practices and policies.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6345.