Civilian commission fires Calif. police chief

Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was fired without cause, an action that caught many city leaders by surprise


Megan Cassidy and Sarah Ravani
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — In a stunning show of power, the Oakland Police Commission — a group of civilians — voted unanimously Thursday night to fire Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick without cause, an action that caught many city leaders by surprise.

The firing required approval from Mayor Libby Schaaf, who hired the chief three years ago. Moments after the commission’s vote, Schaaf phoned the chief to inform her that she was out of the job.

In this 2016 file photo, Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, as head of the Chicago Police Department's Bureau of Professional Standards, attends a new recruits event. (Photo/TNS)
In this 2016 file photo, Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, as head of the Chicago Police Department's Bureau of Professional Standards, attends a new recruits event. (Photo/TNS)

The decision followed a long-simmering tension between the chief and the commission that was created by a voter-approved ballot initiative in 2016 that aimed to rebuild trust between officers and their community.

The commission voted during a closed session of its meeting and announced the action afterward.

“The police commission is the community’s voice,” Schaaf said in a press conference immediately following the commission’s announcement. “The voters of Oakland in 2016 created the most powerful and independent police commission in the country. Tonight they exercised that power.”

Assistant Chief Darren Allison will serve as acting chief until an interim chief is selected. Schaaf said she will do a nationwide search for a new chief.

The mayor said it was her duty to determine when the trust between the commission and the chief “has become irrevocably lost and prevents Oakland from moving forward.”

There’s been little love lost between Kirkpatrick and commissioners over the past several months.

This year the civilian oversight body ruled to fire five police officers involved in a controversial 2018 shooting after Kirkpatrick and internal investigators mostly exonerated them.

On Oct. 10, a police commission meeting devolved into a battle of insults and cross-talk between Kirkpatrick and two commissioners over the department’s steps to hire women of color. Oakland Police Commissioner Ginale Harris called an Oakland police staffer’s presentation on the topic “disgraceful,” prompting Kirkpatrick to step in and demand an apology.

“She will not get one from me,” Harris responded. “And neither will you.”

The tension between Harris and Kirkpatrick boiled over again late last year, after Harris became the subject of an investigation following a dustup between Harris and employees at her son’s school in San Francisco. Harris accused the department of targeting her for a bogus investigation as retaliation for vocal criticisms of the department.

Commission Chair Regina Jackson said a new chief must address use of force issues and end the need for a court-mandated federal monitor. The monitor was appointed in 2003 after the “Riders” scandal when a group of rogue officers were accused of beating and framing Oakland citizens of crimes.

“The Commission demands a leader who will diversify and grow the Department to the level of respect that our officers and community deserve,” Jackson said in a statement. “The Department must be a model of constitutional policing and justice, and the Commission is committed to working with the Mayor to find the right next leader.”

Schaaf declined to comment on the chief’s response upon being informed she was fired. Kirkpatrick did not respond to a Chronicle request for comment.

Kirkpatrick will receive one year of her salary as severance. When she was hired in 2017, Kirkpatrick’s salary was $299,675 — including her total compensation and benefits.

In Oakland, the mayor, city administrator and police commission have the authority to fire the police chief. The commission can remove the chief if it has cause with five votes, according to the city charter. Without cause, however, the commission needs the approval of the mayor.

With some limitations, the commissioners also have the authority to discipline officers and help craft policies within the department.

The president of the Oakland Police Officers Association expressed disappointment in Thursday’s decision. Barry Donelan, the president, said Kirkpatrick was well-respected in the department, but “fighting for Oakland’s residents and Police Officers alike does not endear you to Oakland’s unelected Police Commissioners and our Mayor.”

“These events don’t bode well for public safety in Oakland,” Donelan said in a statement.

Councilman Dan Kalb, who has been outspoken about the need to fill vacancies at the department, said the decision to fire Kirkpatrick surprised him. He echoed Jackson’s calls for the next chief to bring the city under compliance with federal oversight requirements, as well as “rebuild trust among the broad and diverse range of residents.”

Only one member of the public addressed the commission after the vote. Rashidah Grinage, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability and longtime critic of Kirkpatrick, thanked the commission for its decision. Grinage is a longtime activist whose husband and son were killed by police in a 1993 shooting that left an officer dead.

“Almost a year ago, the coalition and many other allies... did a press conference right outside of City Hall, calling for the chief to be terminated,” she said. “It’s taken a year, but we know about the arc of justice.”

In most places, police commissions do not have the authority to fire a police chief, said David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh.

“In most cities or counties, the chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor or county executives,” he said. “That person hires and fires.”

California Police Chiefs Association President Ronald Lawrence echoed Harris and said a police chief’s job typically rests in the hands of a city manager or mayor.

This level of civilian influence over police is rare. Only a handful of law-enforcement agencies have a commission at all.

“This would be the first time I’ve ever heard of that,” Lawrence said when asked whether he was aware of another instance when a civilian body ousted the leader of a police department.

Oakland has one of the strongest models of any police oversight authority boards in the country, said Tom Nolan, an associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College in Boston. Nolan was a Boston police officer for 27 years.

“There is no other commission that exists in the United States that I’m aware of that has the authority to unilaterally terminate a police chief,” Nolan said. “Oakland is kind of standalone here. I think with good reason given the history.”

Kirkpatrick was appointed by Schaaf in January 2017 amid allegations that a group of officers had sexual relations with the teenage daughter of an Oakland dispatcher and that others helped cover up their misconduct. She came into the job after the Police Department cycled through three police chiefs in nine days in June 2016.

During that time, allegations came to light that Oakland officers had exchanged racist text messages and emails.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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