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Oakland police chief placed on leave after scathing report showing oversight

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Oakland, Calif.'s police department is in turmoil again. Today, the city's new mayor, Sheng Thao, fired the police chief for failing to hold a police officer accountable. She had earlier put Chief LeRonne Armstrong on administrative leave following a scathing oversight report involving a hit-and-run accident by that officer. The police department is still under federal supervision because of a police abuse scandal more than two decades ago. Joining us now for the latest is NPR's Eric Westervelt. Hey, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so, I mean, Oakland has cycled through a dozen police chiefs in the last decade, right? Is this just another cycle, another blow to an already troubled department?

WESTERVELT: It really is. I mean, it's another difficult day for a - you know, a department that has gone through police leaders at really just a staggering rate. You know, chiefs barely last, you know, a year or two here. The city continues to, you know, struggle with high crime, especially a high homicide rate. The department continues to struggle with staffing problems and morale problems, challenges, you know, worsened by the pandemic.

And then, you know, Chief Armstrong was really a popular chief. He was seen as someone who was making modest but kind of steady progress. He's from Oakland. He grew up here, went to high school here. He joined the department and rose up, you know, through the ranks. And he's been on the job barely two years and was seen as a positive leader in what is really one of American policing's toughest jobs. But Mayor Sheng Thao, you know, lost faith in him following a dispute over discipline of a sergeant. Here is the mayor speaking late this afternoon at City Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHENG THAO: Chief Armstrong has my respect and appreciation for his service to the department and to the city that he grew up in and that he clearly loves dearly, and he will continue to have my respect and appreciation. But I am no longer confident that Chief Armstrong can do the work needed to achieve the vision.

CHANG: So tell us more about the disciplinary cases that led to the chief's ouster and how all of that is connected to federal oversight.

WESTERVELT: Yeah. The chief was under an intense pressure of how he handled two misconduct investigations into the same sergeant. The mayor and the federal monitor cited, you know, inadequate discipline for this sergeant who was involved in a car accident, a hit-and-run, that they only really found out about when the victim of the hit-and-run filed an insurance claim. The same sergeant later fired his service gun in a police elevator and then allegedly threw the bullets off the Bay Bridge to try to cover it up. But an internal affairs review that was signed off by the chief, you know, just gave the sergeant some counseling and some additional driver training. Armstrong himself sort of downplayed the hit-and-run, as - you know, as he called it, a minor traffic collision, not a scandal. And he said he signed off on the internal review based on, you know, what he was told and what he knew at the time.

But then the federal monitor comes in and says, look, this was incredibly lax punishment. This was a hit-and-run. You fired your gun. In their words, it exposed systemic deficiencies, you know, in how the department investigates its own. They said Armstrong had committed some, you know, gross dereliction of duty. And it really - that's the crux of the 20-year federal oversight is how Oakland disciplines and holds officers accountable. So this case sort of struck at the heart of that oversight. And the mayor sort of agrees...

CHANG: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: ...With the federal monitor and said, you know, it's time to go.

CHANG: Well, I realize, Eric, that this just happened tonight. But what's been the reaction so far to this new development - yet another chief getting sacked?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, I mean, it's already stoking some anger and frustration. I've reached out to some sources. I mean, some key communities of color - the Asian, Black and Latino groups - had come together in calling for the chief to be reinstated. They'd held weekly protests in front of City Hall and the police department. And now the chief they wanted, you know, reinstated has been sacked. So they're angry. They felt like he was someone who really listens.

I spoke with Pastor Marty Peters. He's with Victory Baptist Church. And I talked to him right before the mayor's decision, and he was already warning that, look, you know, the Black church and Oaklanders who back the chief, we won't forget Mayor Thao's, you know, first big move after taking office. Here he is.

MARTY PETERS: I think this was a wrong move, wrong time. And when she's going to need the church community and when she going to need the community, they going to remember this harsh treatment that we have received as citizens of Oakland.

CHANG: So real quick, Eric, what do you think comes next for Oakland and its police department?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, Ailsa, they've got the tough job of, you know, looking for another chief. They'll try to look outside the department we think. But, you know, can they find someone with the skills, the experience and the passion for taking on what really is an incredibly tough challenge in policing?

CHANG: For real. That is NPR's Eric Westervelt. Thank you so much, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.