Anne Kirkpatrick sworn in as Oakland police chief by Mayor Libby Schaaf on Feb. 27, 2017. Photo by Scott Morris.

Oakland police chief’s troubles resemble those of her past

Last year, when Anne Kirkpatrick took over as Oakland’s new police chief, OPD was reeling from a scandal that had left deep distrust between the city’s residents and the department. Mayor Libby Schaaf touted Kirkpatrick as “the reform-minded leader Oakland’s been looking for” and said she would “bring greater accountability, justice, and safety to our city.”

But since taking the job, Kirkpatrick has faced controversy in Oakland, including for her decision to promote command staff implicated in the cover-up of the massive sex abuse scandal involving the underage daughter of a police dispatcher. The chief also has come under fire for allowing Oakland police officers to assist in an August raid by ICE agents that resulted in the arrest of a man for allegedly being in the country illegally — an incident that raised questions as to whether OPD’s involvement in the case violated Oakland’s sanctuary city law.

And a review of Kirkpatrick’s record as a police chief in other cities reveals similarities to the troubles she now faces in Oakland. Over the years, she has been no stranger to scandal, she has a history of trusting cops who lie and of standing behind those who have engaged in gross misconduct, and her commitment to police reform has been less than stellar.

A decade ago, Kirkpatrick became chief of the Spokane Police Department in Washington just after a controversial in-custody death that eventually led to the indictment and conviction of two officers. When she left more than five years later, the incident still loomed over the department, and its relationship with the city was as damaged as ever.

Reviews of Kirkpatrick’s performance there are mixed. A scathing U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that the Spokane Police Department lacked leadership and transparency under Kirkpatrick. And many basic police reforms like having officers wear body cameras were only enacted after Kirkpatrick’s departure. But her allies from Spokane also contend that Kirkpatrick was as much a victim of a cover-up as anyone, saying she was repeatedly lied to by her own officers and even the city attorney’s office.

Before arriving in Spokane, Kirkpatrick had been a police officer in Memphis, Tenn., in the early 1980s. She earned a law degree from Seattle University in 1989 and was a police officer in Redmond, Wash., from 1987 to 1995, according to her résumé. She first became a police chief in Ellensburg, a city with fewer than 20,000 residents in rural Washington, in 1996, and in 2001 became police chief in Federal Way, Wash., a Seattle suburb with 87,500 residents.

Kirkpatrick was announced as the next police chief in Spokane on July 20, 2006, and took over the job on Sept. 11. At the time, Spokane had a population of just under 200,000, about half the size of Oakland. And the Spokane Police Department was embroiled in controversy over the death of Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old janitor who suffered from a developmental disability. According to a Department of Justice press release, on March 18, 2006, Officer Karl Thompson Jr. attacked Zehm from behind in a convenience store with a baton, hit him in the head, deployed a Taser when Zehm was on the ground in a fetal position, and continued to beat him. Zehm died in a hospital two days later.

SPD provided shifting explanations for why the use of force was necessary against Zehm, saying he had lunged at Thompson and had refused to drop a plastic Pepsi bottle, prompting Thompson to react defensively. But the department also fought the release of security camera video and other public records related to the incident.

The FBI opened an investigation a few months later. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington at the time, James McDevitt, said in a recent interview that he was reluctant to step in but found that the local prosecutor was not handling the case properly. The city attorney’s office and the police officers’ union fought the investigation at every step, he said, withholding evidence and refusing to cooperate. When the U.S. Attorney’s Office called officers before a grand jury, some had to return multiple times to revise their testimony.

McDevitt said he called Kirkpatrick when she came on as chief and alerted her to the ongoing FBI investigation as a courtesy. Kirkpatrick, he said, was also being lied to by her own officers and the city attorney’s office, which led to her making public statements in support of Thompson. McDevitt said Kirkpatrick and Jim Nicks, the acting police chief who preceded her, “were the only two people that I thought I could trust” in the department.

But three years later, as the investigation went on, Kirkpatrick continued to give her “unequivocal support” to Thompson, according to the Spokesman-Review, the city’s only daily newspaper. “Based on all the information and evidence I have reviewed, I have determined that Officer Karl Thompson acted consistent with the law,” she said on March 1, 2009, less than four months before Thompson was indicted on charges of using unreasonable force and lying to investigators.

It took more than two years before the case went to trial. By then, there were unconfirmed reports in the local news that Kirkpatrick would be leaving the chief’s position in the coming months. Thompson went on trial in October 2011, weeks before a mayoral election. On Nov. 2, Thompson was found guilty of civil rights violations and obstruction of justice. On Nov. 8, mayoral candidate David Condon defeated incumbent Mary Verner. On Nov. 11, Kirkpatrick announced her retirement, and on Nov. 16, Verner asked the Justice Department to conduct a review of the department.

In the press conference announcing her appointment as the next police chief in Oakland, Kirkpatrick touted her longevity in police chief positions — five years or more in each of her three stints — and said, “I, in each case, left because of another opportunity when I think, as a whole, people were asking me to stay.” However, when she announced her impending departure from Spokane in 2011, she told the Spokesman-Review, “I have nothing lined up. I have no application anywhere… I’m a young woman, and I have new chapters I want to explore.”

Asked about the discrepancy between these narratives and other questions about the troubles in Kirkpatrick’s time in Spokane, OPD provided a two-page statement saying in part, “Chief Kirkpatrick had reached the denouement of her self-imposed 5-year tenure as Chief of Police when in September 2011 she was recruited to teach leadership classes for the FBI.” Responding to a follow-up email asking why she told the Spokesman-Review she had “nothing lined up” if she had already been recruited as an FBI instructor, OPD officials said she was still considering practicing law privately and “did not want to make any long-term commitments.”

Verner disputed that Kirkpatrick may have been forced out of her role as chief, saying in an email, “I can assure you Chief Kirkpatrick was doing a fine job in Spokane, and her departure for better opportunities was entirely of her own choosing.” OPD also said the incoming deputy mayor in Spokane had asked whether Kirkpatrick planned to stay on as chief. Condon, who defeated Verner and remains Spokane’s mayor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Reforms implemented in Spokane under Kirkpatrick were limited. The main effort under her tenure was the appointment of a police ombudsman. But that step was directed by the city council, not her.

Kirkpatrick’s policies also didn’t lead to any decline in officers’ use of force: There were 126 use of force incidents in 2011 compared to 119 in 2006, according to data provided by SPD. Use of force incidents did drop to as low as 80 in 2008 but remained high in 2012 with 125.

When the voluntary Justice Department review was completed in 2014, it did not name Kirkpatrick, but was sharply critical of department leadership during her tenure. Regarding the Zehm incident’s continued impact on SPD, it stated that it “is likely due to the minimal actions taken by the department in the six years following the incident. Although the department had two chiefs — one of whom was an interim chief — during 2006–2012, little was done to repair and mend the turmoil this incident caused both internal and external to the department.” Kirkpatrick was chief for all but about six months of that period.

Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Spokane-based Center for Justice, which brought a civil lawsuit on behalf of Zehm’s family, confirmed that substantial reforms only happened in Spokane after Kirkpatrick’s departure, saying they were a result by efforts by the new police chief and mayor, the Justice Department review, community pressure, and the settlement of the lawsuit in the Zehm case. “Kirkpatrick had nothing to do with it,” he said in an email. “Frankly, there was a sense that change could occur after she left.”

But Pierce Murphy, former police ombudsman in Boise, Idaho, who visited Spokane as a consultant, attributed the lack of reforms under Kirkpatrick mainly to pushback from the strong police officers’ union. “My impression was she was very committed as a chief to bringing about reform,” Murphy said.

Kirkpatrick did face a troubled relationship with the officers’ union in Spokane, which took a vote of “no confidence” in her leadership in 2010. At her first Oakland press conference, she was asked about the vote and called the results “fraudulent,” encouraging reporters to “do your homework.” She was referring to a vote tally obtained by the Spokesman-Review that indicated that while the union voted 112-79, about 80 members had abstained.

To accomplish real reform in Oakland, Kirkpatrick will have to contend with a similarly strong police officers’ union and a department with entrenched problems. An investigation ordered last year by then-U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson found that OPD commanders had botched the sex abuse investigation at every level. It led to the departure of police Chief Sean Whent, opening the job up for Kirkpatrick, who had been a finalist for the police chief job in Chicago and was hired to assist reform efforts there.

In a status conference for OPD’s federal reform case in October, civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, one of two lawyers who brought the original case in 2001 that led to the long-running reform effort, expressed concerns that command staffers were not being held accountable to the same extent as line officers. Chanin was referring to Kirkpatrick’s decision to promote the commanders who botched the investigation of the sex abuse scandal and allowed the young victim, Celeste Guap, to destroy evidence. But Kirkpatrick defended the promotions. “I was looking for men and women of good character,” she said. “These promotions were mine to make, and I made them.”

After the August ICE raid in West Oakland, Kirkpatrick and OPD maintained that the case was a “human trafficking” investigation. But there is no public evidence of human trafficking having occurred. And at a public forum on Sept. 6, Kirkpatrick said criminal charges had been filed in connection with the raid. But that statement was false. While two people were detained in the raid, one was later released and the other has been charged with no crime but is facing deportation.

Kirkpatrick provided a report to the city council on the raid on Nov. 28. She came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation; the first slide was titled, “Integrity.” “The issue of my integrity has been called into question,” Kirkpatrick told the council. “My integrity is strong enough that it can withstand any attack to it and/or any examination of it.”

Frustrated by OPD’s actions, the council’s Public Safety Committee was expected to take up a new resolution on Dec. 5, forbidding any cooperation with ICE, but the meeting was canceled due to a strike by city employees.