Jurisprudence

Why Reforms Haven’t Changed Police Culture

Police officers in a fog of tear gas
Police officers stand in a fog of tear gas during a protest sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 29, 2020, in Oakland, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When people write about the Oakland Police Department, they tend to use superlatives: It’s the “most watched” police department in California, a “model for the state,” a “dirty police force that’s getting clean.” But these superlatives wouldn’t apply at all if it weren’t for two men: a cop named Keith Batt and a suspect named Delphine Allen. Two decades ago, “Allen became the named plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department, alleging that the behavior of the police officers—the brutal random beatings, planting drugs on people—was systematic,” said Darwin BondGraham, news editor for the Oaklandside. The truth about the PD’s brutality, which Allen and Batt both brought to light during the trial, set in motion legal proceedings that would remake Oakland’s police force. Dozens of convictions were overturned, and a federal monitor was put in charge of reforming the cops. Now, after many years, a judge has ruled that the department can enter a probationary period: a year with no screwups, and they’re free from oversight. That has some Oakland residents worried. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with BondGraham about what’s been fixed within Oakland policing—and what’s still broken. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: It all started in July 2000. Keith Batt was one of the cops who stopped Delphine Allen. But Batt was a rookie, still in training, just 23 years old. He kicked Allen a couple of times, then regretted it.

Darwin BondGraham: Delphine Allen was a young man who was stopped by the Oakland police in the summer of 2000. Late at night, he was walking across the street, holding a soda can or maybe a can of beer. He was allegedly kidnaped by two police officers, driven under a freeway bridge in West Oakland, and brutally beaten. There were photographs of his face shown: His eye was bloodshot. He had bruises all over. I mean, Allen had a nightmare experience that night.

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Later on, Keith Batt’s training officer chastises him and says: Why did you hold back? You should have thrown a few more blows. They had a big argument, and the training officer told him: You’ve got to resign. You can’t be a police officer. You just can’t cut it. So, Betts is putting in his letter of resignation, and this other, older training officer accepting the letter said, You can say this, or you can tell the truth.

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Since then, there are still deep cultural problems at play. The way police officers think about the world, the way they act and the kind of institutions that they build—that’s still going to lead to constitutional violations, particularly against vulnerable populations, against communities of color.

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When the Delphine Allen story broke, it became known as the “Riders Scandal,” because that’s what rogue officers were called on the streets: “Riders.” They emerged from a call for tough-on-crime policing in the late ’90s. During that summer of 2000, Oakland residents claimed the Riders terrorized them: planting drugs on suspects, falsifying reports, and dishing out all kinds of violence and abuse.

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They would go out in squad cars—they also used an undercover minivan—and they would drive around West Oakland and find people who were just hanging out on the corner or sitting on the steps. They would jump out and chase these guys, pat them down, search them and see if they could find narcotics or weapons. That was the thing they loved to do. And they would do it late at night.

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Did they represent a new kind of policing, or something distinctive in Oakland, or a distinctive part of the Oakland police?

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The Riders were a small group of very aggressive cops who kind of ran roughshod over the community. They were able to get away with this for years on end because other officers in the department would not complain or push back. It was that blue wall of silence, or it was the larger police culture of not wanting to rock the boat. To this day, the police officers who were identified as the Riders, those guys are still friends with a lot of active and retired police in the Bay Area.

People credibly accused of beating suspects and planting drugs.

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Exactly. These guys are friends with retired police chiefs, with current police captains. They regularly attend social functions of the Oakland Police Officers Association, the union that represents the Oakland police. Their reputation within the police departments of the Bay Area is not that they were dirty, corrupt, brutal officers—their reputation is that they were wrongfully accused by this scheming rookie and this overzealous prosecutor, that they were sacrificed because of politics internal to the city of Oakland, and that they didn’t do anything wrong. Keith Batts’ reputation among many police officers is to this day that he’s a rat, that he’s a bad person, that he turned on fellow officers and did something you shouldn’t do. All of that points to the fact that what the Riders Scandal exposed was this culture of policing in which police officers are told very early on, You don’t inform on fellow police officers.

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After Keith Batt blew the whistle on what he’d seen, the Riders were taken to court, but after two of the longest trials in California history, none of them were found guilty of any crimes.

Meanwhile, a lot of people in Oakland thought the city’s policing issue went beyond these few officers—including two civil rights attorneys, John Burris and Jim Chanin.

These two attorneys had been filing dozens of lawsuits against the Oakland PD for the better part two decades before the Riders case landed in their lap. They were really tired of suing Oakland for police brutality, because they found that no matter how high the financial penalty they were able to win in prior cases, it wasn’t effectively pressuring the city to change the way it was policing. So for many years, they had been looking for a case where they could bring a class-action suit to force the city into a settlement that could result in systematic reforms.

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So how was this case different?

The Riders case was different for a few reasons: They had more than 100 plaintiffs alleging the same egregious, unconstitutional conduct by multiple police officers. They had the testimony of Keith Batt, the rookie police officer, who gave unimpeachable testimony and evidence that false reports had been written, that drugs had been planted. So when they brought this case and presented it, the city’s response was, How do we make this go away? Because the city was afraid that if these 119 plaintiffs went to trial …

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I imagine it could’ve bankrupted the city.

Yeah, so the city’s incentive was to settle this thing for as low a financial amount as possible.

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I guess that gave the lawyers leverage. They could say, We can get a lower settlement if we can agree to something on paper about how you’re going to behave.

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Exactly. They had a huge amount of leverage. So they were able to bring in some experts and draft what’s called the negotiated settlement agreement—essentially a consent decree where the city promised to reform itself under the watchful eye of a federal judge and a court-appointed police monitor. The bargain was basically this: Oakland pays about $10 million to settle the claims of these plaintiffs, and if Oakland does that, it also has to agree to the settlement agreement. For the agreement, the plaintiffs came up with this big list of 52 tasks, everything from, Here’s how you fix your internal affairs unit so you ensure police misconduct is properly reported and investigated, to Here’s how you set up your administration so that and your management of police so that there’s not squads of officers running around Oakland unsupervised, able to just like beat people up and engage in this crazy behavior. The judge and the police monitor are watching over all of this, checking off the boxes when these various reforms are completed.

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It’s interesting because you’ve talked about how the original case was focused on these bad apples, a few people who were doing a lot of harm as police officers. But it seems like this negotiated settlement took on the whole department, not just a few people, which is a different and more complicated project.

That’s exactly right. The criminal prosecution of the Riders was focused on the individuals. John Burris and Jim Chanin were more interested in showing that that kind of behavior, those sorts of incidents, they didn’t happen in a vacuum. They were the product of a bad department.

In 2003, this negotiated settlement agreement is ratified, and oversight starts for the Oakland Police Department. How did the police department change?

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Not at all. The numerous reforms that they were required to undertake, they did not eagerly embrace these things. Jim Chanin told me once that it was his impression that the leadership at the Oakland PD thought that when they signed the negotiated settlement agreement, the overseers would get tired of it and just sign off and go away. That’s not what happened, of course.

Just a couple months after they signed the agreement, the U.S. invasion of Iraq started. There was a protest at the Port of Oakland because these Bay Area activists had figured out that one of the shipping companies, the Port of Oakland, was moving war material to the Middle East. So the Oakland PD showed up to this protest and started shooting the protesters with wooden dowels loaded into shotgun rounds, beanbags, tear gas. The police officers mounted on motorcycles were engaging in this technique where they would ride their motorcycle into a crowd and hit people, and then officers on foot would run up behind them with batons and beat people.

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The cycle of progress and backsliding makes it hard to know how much the department has changed, even after years of interventions. But one reform might have a lasting impact on the way Oakland polices: the creation of a civilian oversight board.

Oakland has one of the strongest police commissions in the country. This commission can fire the police chief if it wants to. It gets to set policies around things like whether or not cops can use chokeholds.

And these are just civilians.

These are just civilians. They have an investigative wing that investigates misconduct cases and recommends discipline. The police commission was set up to be the institution that continues forward with reforms after the negotiated settlement agreement wraps up and the federal judge and monitor go away. So when that has gone, possibly next year. It’s the police commission that will undertake the work of accountability and oversight.

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I’m curious how you reacted when you heard the news that the Oakland PD’s oversight might be ending.

We’ve heard this before. In 2015, the department was readying itself to come out from federal court oversight. But what happened was, a scandal emerged that involved Oakland police officers sexually exploiting a young woman, and the department had covered a lot of that up. That scandal set the department back.

Maybe it’s different this time. But the really hard thing is changing the culture of policing, and I don’t think that OPD is quite there. I don’t know that any police department is there. If you look at contemporary policing in America, there are still deep cultural problems at play. There are tens of thousands of police departments and law enforcement agencies in America. It’s a very long list of cities and counties that are going to have to be visited and engaged in a consent decree–type reform process and also engage in a process of examining police culture. The work has barely begun.

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