There's a new wrinkle in the story about the Oakland Police Commission's search process for a new police chief, and one that may explain why they've been slow-walking the search and annoying Mayor Sheng Thao.
Mayor Thao came out swinging last week, telling the media that she was considering declaring a state of emergency in the city over the fact that the Oakland Police Commission still had not, nearly seven months in, found a new chief of police. Thao said that if there wasn't a slate of candidates by the end of the year, the emergency would be declared because "this process has been held up by the police commission for far too long with all the shenanigans, the internal fighting."
Interestingly, the Oakland Police Commission announced Monday that their timeline includes having a final slate of candidates selected for interviews by the week of October 9, as NBC Bay Area reported.
Will that slate include former Chief LeRonne Armstrong? It now seems like a possibility, after Monday also brought the news that Armstrong was cleared of wrongdoing in the police misconduct case that led to his being put on leave — and ultimately to his firing by Thao.
As the Chronicle reports, a non-binding ruling came from an independent arbitrator, retired California Court of Appeals judge Maria Rivera, and was filed on September 7 — so, before Thao made her statements last week. In clearing Armstrong of wrongdoing, Rivera did not go so far as to say he should be reinstated, but that he and the city should potentially negotiate that.
Rivera did write in the 51-page decision that "the discipline imposed on Chief Armstrong should be reversed and removed from his personnel record."
The "discipline" in this case was Armstrong's ultimately firing, which came after he defended his own actions in the handling of an internal misconduct case — one that involved an officer accused of getting into a hit-and-run fender-bender in a San Francisco parking garage and not reporting it, and shooting a loaded weapon inside a police headquarters elevator, and then trying to dispose of the shell casings.
But Mayor Thao sounds like she is not interested in revisiting her decision, and she says it's because of how Armstrong handled the conflict after it was made public, not his actions in the case per se.
In a statement to the Chronicle, Thao says she remains troubled by "many statements [by Armstrong] indicating that he saw no need for deep reflection or change within the Department." Thao added, "By immediately and prematurely standing up for himself personally, Mr Armstrong failed to stand up for accountability at OPD. His conduct forced me to make one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make."
Armstrong, an Oakland native and longtime veteran of the police department, was one of the first hirings from within to occur in many years. The department has been under the gaze of a federal monitor for over two decades now, and Armstrong's supporters blamed that fact, and the monitor's desire to continue being paid for the job, as reasons influencing Armstrong's removal — under Armstrong, prior to this misconduct case coming to light, the city had appeared poised to end that federal oversight.
No doubt there are police commissioners who remain supporters of Armstrong — they helped usher him into the job after they ordered the firing of former chief Anne Kirkpatrick in 2020. Kirkpatrick ended up winning a $1.5 million wrongful termination settlement from the city last year, and she just landed a new job as the chief of police in New Orleans.
As NBC Bay Area notes, Oakland has seen eight different police chiefs in the last 14 years, and the high turnover is in part due to the federal monitor's oversight and a zero-tolerance policy for many mistakes.
The federal monitor assigned to the department, Robert Warshaw, issued his most recent assessment of the OPD in late March, saying, "The Oakland Police Department is facing very serious questions about its capacity to police itself."
A federal judge, U.S. District Judge William Orrick, subsequently declined in April to release the department from federal oversight, saying, "The one issue that we haven’t made a ton of progress on is the cultural rot that existed at the time that you brought this suit 23 years ago."
That "cultural rot" came to light, in part, as a result of the 2003 Riders scandal, which Rolling Stone once referred to as like a "real-life Training Day," referring to the 2001 Denzel Washington film about a corrupt cop. The so-called Riders were four veteran Oakland cops who were known for bringing in record numbers of drug suspects, until it came to light that they engaged in a range of corrupt activities including beatings, planting evidence, and kidnappings.
Subsequent scandals, including one in 2016 in which officers were found exchanging racist and otherwise offensive texts, and one in which multiple officers were found to be essentially engaging in sex-trafficking with an underage woman named Celeste Guap, have not helped convince Judge Orrick that the department has fixed itself.
Armstrong has said that he feels he was unfairly given the blame for the case of the light disciplining of OPD Sergeant Michael Chung — and that it was the head of Internal Affairs, former Captain Wilson Lau, who was responsible for watering down the report on Chung's offenses. Lau was also fired from the department, and he has claimed he was made a scapegoat by Armstrong.
A spokesperson for Armstrong, Sam Singer, tells the Chronicle that the former chief is "deeply pleased with the [arbitrator's] report, but he is not surprised by it," and he is "open to returning as chief of police."
Under California law, the arbitrator's review of the case was standard and non-binding, and therefore the city is under no obligation to respond or act on it.
Armstrong also gave a press conference Monday, saying "I think today is something that I envisioned happening a long time ago. I've said from the onset of this that I was not guilty of any of these allegations that the facts will come out in this case and when the facts did come out, I felt like I will be vindicated, and today is that vindication."
Armstrong added, "My termination was never really about the facts or my ability to lead the Oakland Police Department — my termination was about Federal Monitor Robert Warshaw and the mayor's failure to fight for the Oakland community."