SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. judge approved a last-ditch settlement on Wednesday to avert a federal court takeover of Oakland’s troubled police force in a deal that would give a new official sweeping power to impose change but leave day-to-day operations in city hands.
The northern California city, with a history of civil unrest and police violence, in 2003 settled a civil rights case in which police allegedly planted evidence and beat suspects.
But nearly a decade later, the city has failed to complete work on a list of promised reforms. Images of Oakland police in riot gear using tear gas to subdue members of the Occupy protest movement a year ago raised a global outcry.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who has been considering taking the force into receivership, said he hoped a new official could institute reform, but reserved the right to impose a full federal receivership if the city fails to make progress.
His decision came after the city and plaintiff lawyers agreed last week to appoint a new “compliance director,” answerable to Henderson, who would have new powers - including the ability to fire the police chief.
Henderson had been scheduled to consider the deal on Thursday but canceled the hearing in his latest order.
Some 119 individual plaintiffs, almost all African-American, had joined the litigation and alleged a range of constitutional violations including false arrest, planting of evidence and excessive use of force.
“The court is hopeful that the appointment of an independent compliance director with significant control over the OPD will succeed - where city and OPD leaders have failed,” Henderson wrote.
Last week, an attorney for the plaintiffs called the move “receivership-light” with no significant differences from a formal court-appointed receiver, and city officials said the deal showed their commitment to reforms.
Henderson told Reuters this year that reforms had stalled, and he cited a report that showed an unusually high number of internal affairs investigations were being closed as “unfounded,” which clears an officer’s record.
Plaintiff attorney John Burris said he was pleased Henderson approved the deal, calling it the “last best chance” for the department to comply with the consent decree. A hearing was set for June to review the new measures.
Reporting By Dan Levine; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman