A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
UnderCurrents Column
Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper
February 18, 2005

Buddhist references to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown tend to get stale from overuse. Still, you just can't help saying that it's karma when the man who sat on his hands and did nothing while the Oakland public schools were being seized by the state is now in danger of having his upcoming state attorney general candidacy put in some difficulty by a threatened federal court takeover of the Oakland Police Department.

In early 2003, the City of Oakland settled with more than 100 residents who fielded a lawsuit claiming they had suffered serious mistreatment by Oakland police. Among the actions Oakland police were accused of were racially profiling African-American and Latino citizens, beating folks without legal justification, lying on the witness stand, and planting false evidence against suspects. The settlement is often mistakenly called the "Riders settlement" by the local press, after four West Oakland police officers who called themselves the "Oakland Riders," and who were fired and faced criminal charges on some of these matters. But the Oakland police misconduct lawsuit, filed by attorneys John Burris and James Chanin, involved many more police than just the four Riders.

Part of the 2003 police misconduct settlement was that the Oakland Police Department put systems in place to keep their officers from breaking the law. But OPD has been a little slow in complying, leading to a severely-critical report by the court-ordered Independent Monitoring Team last December. So this week, according to the Oakland Tribune, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson gave Oakland a stiff lecture, warning police and city officials in his courtroom that "unless the Police Department shows significant progress in the coming weeks, he will consider citing the city or city officials for contempt of court. The most serious sanction the judge could order [according to the Tribune] would be to strip the city of its power over the department and put a caretaker in charge." Judge Henderson gave the city until April 25 to come up with significant progress.

This is no idle threat. Henderson is the same judge who has been monitoring prison guard misconduct at Pelican Bay State Prison for years through a Special Master, forcing needed reforms, and recently warned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that he would order the federal takeover of the entire California prison system if the state did not stop mistreating its prisoners. The judge has a reputation for being serious about making sure that law enforcement officials and officers don't go outside the law.

Knowing what probably was going to happen in Judge Henderson's court this week may be at least one possible reason why Mayor Brown so suddenly reversed himself in naming an interim police chief.

When Chief Richard Word left the Oakland Police Department last November, Brown refused to name a temporary replacement (a search for a permanent replacement is ongoing, but it may be delayed until after a new mayor is elected next year). Anyway, instead of immediately replacing Word, Brown chose to run the department himself through City Manager Deborah Edgerly, a command-and-control nightmare that left nobody in the ultimate decision-making position who had ever strapped on a gun and covered a police beat.

One wonders why Jerry Brown would want to run the Oakland Police Department when, after all, he has shown little interest in working in the job at which we are actually paying him…running the City of Oakland. And, after the lessons of Oakland Parks chief Harry Edwards or Assistant City Manager George Musgrove as school superintendent, one would have thought he'd had his fill of the idea that just because a guy is smart in one area, you can put him anywhere, to run anything.

(The sad experience of Harry Edwards is still fresh in Oaklanders' minds, but people may have forgotten that in the days after Carol Quan was forced out as Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, Mayor Brown had Mr. Musgrove moved over from the city manager's office to run the school district, even though Mr. Musgrove had-um-no experience running a school district. The results weren't pretty. Mr. Musgrove seemed generally surprised one afternoon when he received a storm of protest from teachers after he arbitrarily moved up the date for district-wide, state-mandated student testing. Not having ever run a school district, it apparently never occurred to Mr. Musgrove that thousands of people in the district might have been spending as much as year of preparation pointing toward the original test date.)

Anyhow, none of those experiences seemed to faze Mr. Brown, who resisted-for two months-sometimes heated calls from the public, the Oakland Police Department, and Oakland City Councilmembers to appoint an interim police chief. Asked about his refusal by the San Francisco Chronicle's Matier & Ross political columnists last December, the mayor gave one of his typical smart-ass answers to serious issues he wants to avoid, saying "Interim chief? What's does that mean? In between? Everyone is interim–we're all in between something." (I'd put in a gratuitous Buddhist comment here but, like I said, those things can get quickly worn out.)

One can only speculate that Mr. Brown–who has no experience as a practicing lawyer since passing the California bar many, many, many years ago–needed to buck up his qualifications for state attorney general by putting the "he's had hands-on experience running a city police department" handle on his résumé.

But Mr. Brown suddenly switched gears, this month naming retired Alameda County Assistant Sheriff Wayne G. Tucker as interim Oakland chief. And so it was Interim Chief Tucker (and not Mr. Brown) who had to stand in the courtroom and listen to the scolding from Judge Henderson, the judge stating "I haven't seen anything like this in 25 years. This is contemptuous. I'm so angry at the slap in the face, the ignoring of this decree." It was Interim Chief Tucker (and not Mr. Brown) who had to admit that the OPD suffered from a "failure of leadership" for not following the orders of the misconduct consent decree. And it was Interim Chief Tucker (and not Mr. Brown) who, according to the Tribune report, "promised it would not continue under his watch."

City Manager Edgerly made the trip over to San Francisco, but if Mr. Brown was even there–which is doubtful–it wasn't mentioned in either the Chronicle or the Tribune reports. Not a good record for a man who wants to be able to tell voters he was tough enough to send cops out every day and night in harm's way.