By J. Douglas
With the Dec. 13 date fast approaching for a federal court hearing on the fate of the Oakland Police Department, the City of Oakland might have avoided a court takeover of OPD if it had followed the advice of a local grassroots police watchdog organization.
Long before the beginning of the Allen v. Oakland “Oakland Riders” federal lawsuit that brought OPD to the brink of federal receivership, People United For a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO) was warning police and city officials about the same police misconduct issues on which the federal case is based.
“We want to create a system in Oakland where police are truly held accountable for their behavior,” PUEBLO Executive Director Rashidah Grinage said in a telephone interview this week. “Right now, most people in the city rightfully understand that the police can do virtually anything and get away with it most of the time.”
Begun as a project of Oakland’s Center For Third World Organizing in 1989, PUEBLO is now an independent, volunteer-based nonprofit that counsels victims of alleged police misconduct, monitors police activity, advocates reform, and works closely with police and government agencies to implement it.
The group’s most successful effort so far has been to upgrade the power and abilities of Oakland’s Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB), the official city agency overseeing the police department.
“When we first got involved with CPRB, it was virtually a shadow puppet play,” Grinage said. “They had hearings on police misconduct, but the hearings were meaningless. They had no subpoena power. They had no investigators of their own. They could not even compel officers to attend hearings of complaints against them.”
Working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee, PUEBLO organized a major hearing on review board problems before the Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee that eventually convinced the full council to change Oakland law to give the CPRB expanded powers.
But reforming how complaints against Oakland police are judged led PUEBLO to another major flaw in the process: how complaints against police are received from citizens in the first place.
After the CPRB was formed, Oakland operated under a system in which citizens who had a complaint about police conduct could file with either the CPRB or with the Internal Affairs Division of the police department.
But in a 2005 survey, PUEBLO discovered that more than 54 percent of Oakland citizens did not know of the CPRB option, and so Internal Affairs was taking in 10 times the number of complaints that the Review Board was receiving.
Two years later, PUEBLO helped organize public support for what they called “civilianization” of the police complaint process. Helped by then-OPD Chief Wayne Tucker and support from former Mayor Ron Dellums’ citizen police task force, PUEBLO was instrumental in 2011 City Council passage of a measure to take citizen complaints entirely out of the hands of the police and put the CPRB in charge.
While Grinage said she has “some suspicions” that the change will not take place because of Oakland Police Officers Association police union interference, CPRB is currently scheduled to take over all citizen complaint intake in January of next year.
Meanwhile, Grinage is encouraging citizens with police complaints to contact PUEBLO first, so that the organization can help them prepare their complaint and guide them through the process. PUEBLO can be contacted at (510) 535-2525 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.