OAKLAND -- The judge who last year threatened to put the Oakland Police Department under federal control over its nearly nine-year failure to reform is now demanding answers for questionable police conduct that raises new concerns.
In a sealed order Aug. 25, Judge Thelton Henderson demanded the city answer for five problems not specifically addressed in the negotiated settlement agreement, or NSA, which in 2003 settled the notorious Riders corruption case. All the concerned parties -- the city, the police union and the attorneys who originally brought the Riders case against the city -- will go before Henderson in court Thursday to discuss the judge's questions.
Henderson's order remained under seal Wednesday, but the city's partially censored response is public, and it largely explains Henderson's concerns:
Attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin, who brought the historic lawsuit against the department, said this week they had not asked Henderson to look into these issues. City officials said they didn't bring them up either, and only one of Henderson's five concerns has been raised by the monitor team.
That suggests that Henderson, who has long expressed frustration and anger with the city's slow reform process, is beginning to look for his own solutions to the apparent logjam. Almost nine years after the department entered into the settlement agreement, it is in full compliance with 32 of the 51 reform tasks to which it agreed.
"He has not done this before," said Chanin -- meaning Henderson has neither raised his own issues nor issued a sealed order in the long history of the case. "We're in uncharted territory for so many reasons."
Examples of another city police department being placed under state or federal control, or receivership, are hard to come by. But Henderson himself placed the California prison system's medical services under state receivership in 2006, and attorneys who fought for that system's reform say a majority of the most egregious, life-threatening problems in that system have seen major improvement since then. However, they added, some problems persist, and there is no clear end date for that receivership.
Concerning the report that officers are drawing their guns too often, police union president Sgt. Dom Arotzarena said Oakland is "in our own league" in terms of violent crime, and that he believes police aren't drawing too often but are instead responding appropriately to their unusually dangerous work environment.
"My worry is that some officer is going to hear about this criticism, and he's not going to draw his gun when he needs to, and somebody's going to get hurt as a result," Arotzarena said.
Arotzarena declined on Wednesday to comment on Henderson's other concerns.
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.