OAKLAND — Just when it was hoping to finally shed federal oversight, the Oakland Police Department has been slammed with a report highly critical of its belated response to the revelation that several officers posted racist and misogynist comments in an Instagram account.
The investigative report, filed last month in federal court by litigation firm Clarence Dyer & Cohen, LLP, comes just weeks after U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick made it clear that if he’s going to lift the two-decades-long oversight, the police department must show through its handling of the social media scandal that it has eliminated systemic racism within its ranks.
“OPD’s anemic response to the (Instagram) page bespeaks the need for a culture shift aided by robust anti-discrimination and social media policies,” the investigators wrote in the report.
Positive steps taken by the police department in recent years toward compliance with a negotiated settlement agreement (NSA) with federal monitors “have been temporarily overshadowed by evidence that some officers remain wedded to hurtful biases and a retrograde vision of policing,” the report said.
How the report will factor into Orrick’s decision in early January remains to be seen, but it’s already given some City Council members and watchdogs reason to doubt that much has changed in the police department.
“I do feel concerned that we are not taking this seriously enough in the department and administration,” Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan said at a city council committee meeting on Tuesday. “It’s not just that people posted these hateful things online. … It reveals a core problem that we have not addressed.”
Orrick said in a hearing earlier this year the police department’s handling of the Instagram scandal will influences whether he deems to lift the federal oversight.
The negotiated settlement agreement stems from a lawsuit filed against the city two decades ago alleging that a group of Oakland police officers known as “The Riders” beat Black residents, planted drugs on them and falsified records. The agreement requires the department to report its progress in achieving 52 reform measures to an outside monitor and a federal judge.
The plaintiffs’ civil rights attorneys, John Burris and Jim Chanin, last month urged Orrick to end the oversight after saying the police department appeared to have made big strides in reforming itself.
But this week, Burris said the new findings have given them pause.
“The revelations were pretty stunning. Unfortunately, it caused us to rethink our positions, or at least think that more work has to be done before we could move into recommending that the NSA be terminated,” Burris said. “Part of the whole case was about changing the culture of the department — making it more inviting, with less disparities. This whole Instagram thing is sort of a dagger into that thinking of the culture.”
The city revealed some findings of the Clarence Dyer & Cohen investigation in September when it announced that seven current Oakland police officers had been disciplined over the Instagram account or for violating department online policies in other ways. Two other officers who were involved since have left for other police departments and one was fired. The fired officer started the Instagram account after he left, according to the report.
The investigators discovered that a lieutenant learned of the account in September 2020 and notified the department’s Intelligence Unit. But police officials at the time thought the account, which invited other officers to follow the page, could be an “Antifa or BLM-type trap,” or an effort by Antifa or Black Lives Matter activists to “infiltrate” their organization, the investigators wrote in the report.
As a result, intelligence officers monitored the account for several months and didn’t initiate an active investigation until January, when word had reached a local reporter and an attorney called interim police chief Susan Manheimer about it and showed images.
Once she saw them, Manheimer “immediately recognized that the images were objectionable and that a full investigation should be conducted,” the investigators wrote.
The Instagram account “@crimereductionteam” — named after a specific Oakland Police Department entity — posted multiple memes and captions that were sexist, racist and mocked efforts to curb police brutality.
A caption for one meme began, “Me: How did you make it into all these assignments? You literally have none of the qualifi–” and continued with a response from “her” that showed an image of a woman pulling her shirt up to expose her breasts. The implication was that a female officer used her body to obtain assignments.
Another meme showed a scene from a pornographic film with actress Piper Perri seated on a couch surrounded by five Black men in undershorts and shirts labeled “Internal Affairs,” “Police Commission,” “Command Staff,” “Spineless Cops,” and “Criminals Taking Advantage of the Situation.”
“Putting aside the insubordinate suggestion that ‘good’ cops are under assault from command staff, (Internal Affairs Department), and the Police Commission, the meme clearly draws upon repugnant tropes of Black men as sexual predators of white women,” investigators wrote.
The investigators also discovered that the Instagram account was created by an officer involved in the fatal police shooting of Joshua Pawlik, a homeless man found sleeping with a gun in his hand in March 2018. The report did not identify the officer by name, saying only that the account was created by “an individual who provided an email address that is associated with a recently-terminated OPD officer … the subject of an internal affairs investigation related to an officer-involved shooting in March 2018.”
The officers involved in that shooting and since fired have previously been identified as Francisco Negrete, Craig Tanaka, Brandon Hraiz and William Berger. Another officer, Josef Phillips, was also fired because he shot Pawlik with a bean bag round.
The police department’s leaders have promised to implement the reforms suggested by the investigative firm. They include reviewing and strengthening policies governing department-issued technology; creating extra training sessions on use of department technology, sexual harassment and cultural competency; requiring employees to report work-related social media accounts to the police department’s Office of Inspector General; and regularly auditing the content of department-issued technology.
Assistant Chief of Police Darren Allison reiterated that commitment at Tuesday’s council committee meeting and tried to assure skeptical council members that the solution to underlying racism and misogyny lies in strong recruiting.
“It all starts with recruiting individuals who have shared values with the organization,” Allison said.
In recent conversations, city officials and council members have said the police department needs to hire more women. In a move toward that end, Councilmember Sheng Thao recently introduced a resolution — supported by the rest of the council — asking city administrators to explore ways to provide child care for police recruits.