The newly emboldened, three-year-old Oakland Police Commission has fired the city's chief of police, Anne Kirkpatrick, following extended tensions and a decision to exonerate five police officers whom the commission wanted to fire.
Kirkpatrick took over the department in early 2017, in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire and following a chaotic year in which a sex scandal involving an underage sex worker led to the forced resignation of former chief Sean Whent. Whent was succeeded by two different men in the department who were also fired within a week of each other by Mayor Libby Schaaf after revelations about a racist texting scandal. And Kirkpatrick, who had been chief of police in Spokane, Washington before working in the Chicago PD, became Oakland's first-ever female police chief.
But a bizarre officer-involved shooting case in March 2018 became a lightning rod between the commission and Kirkpatrick, with the police chief exonerating five officers involved and the commission later deciding they should be fired. Also, as the Chronicle reports today, there was ongoing tension between Kirkpatrick and one member of the police commission in particular, Ginale Harris.
Harris was involved in an incident at her son's school in November that subsequently led to what she called a bogus investigation of her conduct (she allegedly tried to force her way into the building twenty minutes before school ended, violating school policy about picking up children early, and she allegedly called the school's director a "devil" and a "slave owner"). That investigation followed an incident at a police commission meeting in October, as the Chronicle reports, in which Harris insulted an Oakland Police Department employee over a presentation that she made about the department's efforts to hire more women of color.
In the officer-involved shooting case, 32-year-old Joshua Pawlik was found lying unconscious with a gun in his hand between two houses in West Oakland. Pawlik was homeless and was known to have mental health issues, and arriving officers spent 45 minutes attempting to rouse him without response. When Pawlik finally did awaken, he allegedly refused to comply with officers' commands to take his hand off his weapon, and officers claim that he then lifted the gun as though he were going to aim it at them. Five officers opened fire and killed Pawlik (four with rifles, one with a beanbag gun). A subsequent investigation by the OPD's federal court-appointed monitor, Robert Warshaw, found that there was video evidence that disputed the officers' description of events, and that Pawlik may have merely been groggily trying to lift himself up when officers shot and killed him.
To make this more convoluted, an investigation by the commission's own, civilian-led Community Police Review Agency (CPRA) disagreed with Warshaw and ruled to exonerate the officers involved. And Kirkpatrick agreed with them, also exonerating the officers. The commission overruled the chief and the CPRA and in July of last year voted to fire the officers, although Kirkpatrick still had the final say and the officers had the right to an appeals process.
The final say when it comes the firing of Kirkpatrick belongs to Mayor Schaaf, but on Thursday night Schaaf delivered the bad news to Kirkpatrick in a phone call, saying that she was upholding the commission's decision.
In a news conference following the decision, Schaaf said, "The police commission is the community’s voice. The voters of Oakland in 2016 created the most powerful and independent police commission in the country. Tonight they exercised that power."
It's a rare move by a rare civilian-led commission — only a couple of California cities even have police commissions, like the larger cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and wielding power like this is rare.
Schaaf will now conduct another nationwide search — the second in three years — to find a new chief of police. Assistant Chief Darren Allison will serve as acting chief in the interim.