December 14, 2014 / 4:39 PM / 3 years ago

For police reformers, California city shows a rough road

A line of Oakland police officers block off a highway off-ramp during a demonstration in Oakland, California following the grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in this November 24, 2014 file photo.Elijah Nouvelage/Files

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - In 2000, police in Oakland, California became a symbol of the worst of American law enforcement after a band of rogue officers known as "The Riders" were accused of beating suspects, planting evidence and falsifying reports.

Today, as an outcry over police killings and excessive force spreads across the country, Oakland's police are becoming known for something else: restraint and reform.

Under scrutiny by a court-ordered external monitor and threatened with federal receivership, Oakland's 14-year journey from notorious law enforcement agency to reform-minded department illustrates the difficulty of changing the way police operate at time of national soul-searching over heavy handed police tactics.

Using a new computer system to monitor police, Oakland may be an indicator of what lies ahead for Ferguson, Missouri, and other U.S. cities whose officers face mounting public mistrust and the perception that they operate with impunity in the shooting of black suspects.

In Oakland, no one has been shot by its police in 18 months, a sign of change in a city that averaged 13 police shootings a year between 1993 and 2003, and nine per year between 2004 and 2012, according to Oakland Police data provided to Oakland Police Beat, a news website, and analyzed by Reuters.

Federal civil rights lawsuits over police abuses have also plummeted, according to Westlaw data compiled by Reuters.

"People have noticed," said Rev. Damita Davis-Howard, a community activist in the ethnically diverse city of 400,000 on San Francisco Bay. "People are talking about the fact that given what happened in Ferguson, there has not been an OPD incident in 18 months," Davis-Howard said, using an abbreviation for the police department.

But change has been painfully slow since the four officers in the "Riders" case were accused of robbing suspects while working the night shift in West Oakland, a crime-plagued area that was the historical birthplace of the Black Panther Party, a radical black rights group, in the 1960s.

The officers were never convicted of a crime but the city paid 119 victims a total of $10.9 million to settle damage suits and agreed to reforms in 2003, overseen by a federal judge.

Over the next decade, Oakland police chiefs struggled to meet reform benchmarks amid several high-profile police killings that fanned black-white racial tensions, some with similarities to the case of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old whose shooting in Ferguson sparked weeks of protests.

TIPPING POINT

Like Ferguson, Oakland's police have long faced accusations of racial bias. Between 2004 and 2008, 16 of 24 people killed in police shootings were black; none were white. And while blacks represent about 30 percent of Oakland’s population, they made up 67 percent of fatal police shootings in that period.

Police officers advance on demonstrators following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in Oakland, California in this November 25, 2014 file photo.Stephen Lam/Files

A tipping point came in 2012 when a San Francisco federal judge threatened to place the entire Oakland Police Department under receivership in response to nearly a decade of inadequate attempts to comply with the Riders settlement.

In December 2012, the judge appointed a compliance director with broad oversight powers. Five months later, the department went through three police chiefs in three days. Out of that chaos emerged Chief Sean Whent, an 18-year department veteran who launched a series of reforms.

Whent introduced a computer system that can track the activity of police officers, including all uses of force, citizen complaints and lawsuits. A special board now reviews instances where officers use force and determines whether they followed policy. It is also trying to tackle data about the race of people stopped by police.

Police shootings stopped. And a long wave of lawsuits accusing the police of misconduct appears to be receding. In 2012, the city was named as a defendant in 19 new federal civil rights cases involving the police, but that number has fallen to just six so far this year, the Westlaw data show.

An Oakland police officer confronts a protester during a demonstration following the grand jury decision on Monday in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in Oakland, California in this November 25, 2014 file photo.Stephen Lam/Files

"We have gotten fewer calls of concern about the Oakland Police Department," said Michael Haddad, a civil rights lawyer who sued the OPD over police strip searches of suspects on the street. "We used to get more calls about shootings and just incidental use of force."

Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice professor at Stanford Law School, said Oakland's experience illustrates how police departments often need strict controls, tough scrutiny and even threats of punishment to change the behavior of officers.

"Once a police department feels it has a complicated compliance formula to obey, and once it translates that down to street police, police tend to act more responsibly, they really do," he said. "There really has to be a threat."

After writing three years of critical quarterly reports on the OPD, independent monitor Robert Warshaw noted a "slight improvement" in July 2013. His latest report on Dec. 1 commended the department’s "steady progress."

"But the efforts must go on," Warshaw wrote, cautioning that the Oakland Police Department must, for instance, make sure it does not stop and detain black and Latino residents at disproportionately higher rates.

Sustaining the change could be difficult. While some of Oakland's neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying, thanks to a tech boom in the Bay Area, crime remains endemic in other areas and some members of the police say the reforms could undermine their ability to fight that.

Michael Rains, an attorney who represents police officers, has openly criticized reforms. He said the intense oversight has made Oakland police much less aggressive in proactively going after criminals, due to the fear of second guessing from the court and arbitrary discipline.

"I don't think you're seeing, today, an enthusiastic attitude by officers to jump out of the car," Rains said.

On Oakland's streets, suspicions run deep. Taylor Johnson, 24, said some police officers can be friendly but not always. “I think it’s about how they feel in that moment,” she said.

Additional reporting by Howard Schneider and Jason Szep in Washington. Editing by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin

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