Inside a 20-Year Effort To Clean Up the Oakland Police Department

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The Riders Come Out at Night, by Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham, Atria Books, 480 pages, $30

Oakland, California, is “the edge case in American policing,” journalists Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham declare in The Riders Come Out at Night. “More has been done to try to reform the Oakland Police Department than any other police force in the United States.”

It’s a bold claim, given the crowded field competing for the title. In Baltimore during 2016, a vice squad was essentially operating a criminal enterprise, using the police department as a front. The corruption and violence exposed in the Rampart scandal, which unfolded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, landed the Los Angeles Police Department under federal oversight for 12 years. Chicago is Chicago. But in their deeply reported and comprehensive book, Winston and BondGraham make a persuasive case that Oakland’s entrenched police corruption best demonstrates “the still-unfulfilled promise of reforming law enforcement.”

The eponymous Riders were a clique of four Oakland police officers known for terrorizing minority neighborhoods. The book opens in 2000, with an idealistic rookie, Keith Batt, being paired with a Rider for field training and quickly learning the grimy truth about urban policing. “Fuck all that shit you learned in the police academy,” one Rider tells Batt. “Fuck probable cause. We’re going to just go out and grab these motherfuckers.”

After witnessing and participating in kidnappings, beatings, cover-ups, and frame-ups, Batt blew the whistle, setting off a legal saga that is still ongoing. The Riders Come Out at Night follows the ensuing two decades of attempts to clean up the Oakland Police Department (OPD).

The local district attorney filed criminal charges against the Riders, one of whom immediately fled the country and remains a fugitive. The prosecution of the remaining three Riders ended in two mistrials. The Riders’ attorneys argued, with a fair amount of evidence, that the officers had been doing what police brass and other city officials demanded.

That was also the feeling of rank-and-file OPD officers and their union leaders, who rallied behind the Riders. As they portrayed it, this was a case of “noble cause corruption.” If you wanted these men to do the dirty work of sweeping drug dealers off the corners in the dead of night, you couldn’t cry every time they roughed someone up or fudged a report.

Although the Riders escaped criminal consequences, Oakland would not get off the hook that easily. John Burris and Jim Chanin, two Bay Area civil rights lawyers, had been routinely squeezing multimillion-dollar settlements out of Oakland on behalf of their clients. (In one case, Burris represented a member of the ’80s R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! who had been choked by one of the Riders.) Burris and Chanin were fed up with the lack of change.

After the criminal prosecution of the Riders collapsed, the two lawyers began putting together a giant civil suit against Oakland. They eventually collected 119 plaintiffs who alleged that they had been beaten or framed by the Riders. Burris and Chanin were holding the legal and fiscal equivalent of a nuclear bomb over the city’s head. Oakland had no choice but to attempt a settlement—through reform rather than cash payouts.

In 2003, Oakland entered into an unusual settlement agreement. It agreed to 52 specific reforms, which would be overseen by an independent monitor who reported to a federal judge. Settlements like this are called consent decrees, and usually only the U.S. Justice Department has the juice to force a city into one. They may be the most powerful tool the federal government has to force change on rotten police departments.

The settlement agreement was supposed to expire after five years, but it was repeatedly extended as reform efforts sputtered and failed. Unnecessary shootings continued. An early warning system to flag officers with high numbers of use-of-force incidents and complaints was ignored. In fact, the most violent cops received glowing reviews for their “proactive” work. Internal affairs investigators chose not to investigate obvious discrepancies in officers’ reports. In the rare instance where an officer was disciplined or fired, the punishment was usually overturned through union arbitration. The police union also clawed back power from Oakland’s civilian police oversight board.

In 2015, a teenaged girl accused dozens of OPD officers of sexually exploiting her. OPD fired four cops and disciplined 12 others over the allegations. One officer committed suicide, and the police chief was forced to resign.

***

The ins and outs of the settlement agreement and the granular details of Oakland politics may be a bit much for general readers. But for anyone interested in the Bay Area or in policing, this book offers a deeply sourced and well-researched narrative. Both authors have years of experience reporting on policing in the Bay Area.

In fact, Winston and BondGraham’s reporting became part of the story of reform in Oakland. California had been one of the most secretive states when it came to police personnel files, but the state legislature passed a bill that made those files public records beginning in 2019. Yet many police departments across the state, including Oakland’s, stonewalled and slow-rolled records requests from reporters and civil liberties groups. Winston and BondGraham were plaintiffs in a lawsuit that forced the OPD to comply with the law.

It is only because of that suit that the authors were able to uncover never-before-revealed information about the long history of complaints and excessive force allegations against the Riders. Supervisors had either ignored or abetted the abuses.

Several chapters take detours into Oakland’s history, describing how the OPD was an enthusiastic participant in repressing Chinese immigrants, union agitators, communists, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The last group, formed in Oakland in the 1960s, was a response to black residents’ longstanding complaints about police beatings and harassment—complaints that one police chief had dismissed in 1949 as “a Communist plot to discredit and harass the OPD.”

These chapters are not totally necessary, but they can be interesting. For example, we learn that during Prohibition, “Oakland cops were skimming so much of the lucrative alcohol trade’s profits that local bootleggers formed a Bootlegger’s Protective Association to collectively resist the extortion.”

This history also shows how deep the roots of police corruption go and why it has been so hard to uproot. In 1949, an independent commission investigated complaints that Oakland police were brutalizing the city’s black population, which had swelled considerably during the previous decade. “I found it hard to describe adequately the sense of monstrous beastliness, authority clothed in nighttime garb, that our investigation disclosed,” one of the researchers wrote.

This problem is not unique to Oakland. Several police departments are currently being investigated for tolerating officer gangs and other groups of criminal cops. The nearby city of Vallejo recently was rocked by reports that a clique of police officers bent the tips of their badges to represent fatal shootings. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County inspector general ordered more than three dozen sheriff’s deputies to appear for interviews and show any tattoos connected to two deputy gangs, the Banditos and the Executioners.

The book ends on a positive note, arguing that real reforms have been accomplished in Oakland. Shootings and other use-of-force incidents have dramatically declined, as have brutality complaints and findings of unjustified force. Last year the federal judge overseeing the settlement agreement, William Orrick, found that Oakland had achieved “substantial compliance” with its terms. He agreed to a one-year probationary period, after which he could possibly terminate the longrunning settlement.

“It’s possible to reform the police,” Winston and BondGraham argue. “That’s one lesson Oakland can offer the nation.” But in April, after The Riders Came Out at Night was published, Orrick declared his decision “premature.” He extended the probationary period for five more months after several new cases of internal corruption emerged.

Winston and BondGraham also concluded that “Oakland’s ultimate lesson then is about vigilance.” This was perhaps more prescient than they realized.

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