You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Federal jury sides with ousted Oakland police chief who brought whistleblower suit against city

Mercury News 5/27/2022 Annie Sciacca, Bay Area News Group
OAKLAND, CA – MARCH 5: Former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick speaks during a news conference in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Kirkpatrick along with former Police Chief Howard Jordan and Councilman Noel Gallo are calling for the removal Police Federal Monitor Robert Warshall. © Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group/TNS OAKLAND, CA – MARCH 5: Former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick speaks during a news conference in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Kirkpatrick along with former Police Chief Howard Jordan and Councilman Noel Gallo are calling for the removal Police Federal Monitor Robert Warshall.

A federal jury has sided with former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick in deciding she was wrongfully terminated in 2020.

The decision came Thursday, about a week and a half after the jury trial began. In that time, city officials, police officers and members of the city’s police oversight commission were called to the stand to settle the question at the root of the lawsuit: whether Kirkpatrick was fired in retaliation for reporting allegedly bad behavior by the police commissioners, or whether — as the city’s mayor and commissioners testified — they terminated her because the community had lost faith in her ability to truly reform the department.

The Oakland Police Commission is made up of seven appointed city residents and was created to oversee the police department’s policies and practices. The commission also oversees the city’s Community Police Review Agency, which investigates police misconduct.

The commission has the ability to fire the police chief with cause or, jointly with the mayor, can terminate the contract of a police chief “without cause,” which is what Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and the commission did in 2020 with Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick then sued in August 2020, accused the city of failing to protect her against a retaliatory firing by its police commission for being a whistleblower, as she had reported to city administration that some commissioners allegedly “abused” and harassed police staff and sought special treatment because of their role. Her lawsuit also accused the city of violating her free speech rights in terminating her for the alleged whistleblowing.

The jury did not support the claim that her free speech had been violated but it did side with Kirkpatrick in determining the firing was at least partially the result of retaliation.

“We thought she was speaking in her capacity as chief,” one of the jurors told Courthouse News Service after the trial. “We thought there was evidence that retaliation played some role in her discharge, which was why we found it was unlawful.”

The jury awarded Kirkpatrick $337,635 in damages, which is the amount she would have received in severance, had she accepted that as a result of “no cause” termination. But in accepting that from the city upon her termination, she would have forfeited the ability to sue.

A spokesperson for Mayor Schaaf, Justin Berton, referred comments to the city attorney’s office, which did not immediately respond Thursday. The city’s director of communications also did not immediately respond Thursday when asked if the city administration wanted to comment on the verdict.

But on the stand earlier this week, Schaaf and members of the Police Commission denied that retaliation played a factor in Kirkpatrick’s termination.

Even though she continued to publicly praise Kirkpatrick until right before the firing, Schaaf said last week, she had started to lose faith in the chief’s ability to reform the department as demanded by a federal judge. Oakland’s police department has been under a court mandate to reform itself ever since the city settled a lawsuit against it in January 2003. The suit alleged that a handful of rogue officers known as the Riders roughed up West Oakland residents, planted drugs on them and falsified arrest reports.

Schaaf recalled how at one hearing before the federal judge overseeing the reform efforts in 2019 that Kirkpatrick became “defensive” and seemed to be in “denial” when it was suggested the department was slipping behind in achieving required reform measures.

Police commissioners who took the stand in the following days this week reiterated those concerns.

“She was not the kind of leader we were going to need to take us out of the (negotiated settlement agreement),” Regina Jackson, former chair of the commission, said on the stand.

They were also concerned about her failure to fix concerns about racism in the department’s hiring and recruiting practices, even when it was brought to her attention by the Oakland Black Officers Association, who later published a statement about it in a local newspaper.

Court and other public records have also showed that there were growing tensions between Kirkpatrick and a federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, who reports to the court how the police department is progressing in its reform.

Warshaw found that Kirkpatrick went against recommendations of her own commanders, who found that senior officers made mistakes at the scene of the shooting of Joshua Pawlik, 31, in 2018. Five officers shot and killed Pawlik in North Oakland after startling him awake as he lay next to a gun.

Although a community police review agency and Kirkpatrick had cleared the officers of wrongdoing, both Warshaw and the police commission called for the firing of the five officers.

That, combined with a backsliding by the department on the court-ordered reforms, was the source of community members losing faith in the chief, Schaaf and others maintained.

©2022 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at mercurynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon