Oakland mayor puts Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong on leave after report details mishandling of officer misconduct cases

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong was placed on administrative leave following a withering report released this week that detailed the department’s mishandling of two officer misconduct cases. An investigation found that Oakland Armstrong violated department rules because he didn’t review evidence from two misconduct incidents before closing the investigations.

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong was placed on administrative leave following a withering report released this week that detailed the department’s mishandling of two officer misconduct cases. An investigation found that Oakland Armstrong violated department rules because he didn’t review evidence from two misconduct incidents before closing the investigations.

Paul Kuroda, Freelance / Special to The Chronicle

Oakland officials placed Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong on administrative leave Thursday after the release of a report that detailed the department’s mishandling of two officer misconduct cases.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao and City Administrator Ed Reiskin said in a statement that Armstrong was placed on leave after the release of the report by an independent law firm that raised concern that the beleaguered department may not be able to exit federal court oversight after nearly 20 years.

“The decision was not taken lightly, but we believe that it is critical for the safety of our community that we build trust and confidence between the Department and the public,” they wrote in a statement. “We must have transparency and accountability to move forward as a safer and stronger Oakland.”

A new court filing this week found “systemic deficiencies” in the department’s handling of internal investigations.

A San Francisco law firm investigated two misconduct cases — one from 2021 in which an Oakland sergeant and officer were involved in a hit-and-run in San Francisco, and another from 2022 in which the same sergeant fired his gun in an elevator at the department’s headquarters.

The investigation determined that the agency’s Internal Affairs Division failed to properly discipline the sergeant and “created an environment that allowed that officer to go on to commit far more egregious and dangerous misconduct.”

The investigation also found that Armstrong, who has said he’s prioritizing completing court-mandated reforms, violated department rules because he didn’t review evidence from the two incidents before closing the investigations.

Thao and Reiskin’s statement said additional findings that haven’t been made public yet are expected. The statement also said that because the issue is a “personnel matter,” officials can’t comment further at the moment.

Thao, who just took office, is under pressure from residents to staff up the department and address violent crime. Thao has said public safety is a major priority of her administration and that she has confidence in the chief. Meanwhile, the department has long struggled to attract cops to build up its staff and rebuild trust with communities. In a statement to The Chronicle early Thursday before news of the chief’s leave came to light, Thao said her office was reviewing the report and possible next steps.

“I am deeply concerned about the findings of this report,” Thao said. “The city of Oakland asked for this independent investigation precisely because the allegations were so troubling and because we take seriously the need to adhere to the negotiated settlement agreement.”

Assistant Chief Darren Allison was named acting chief for the department.

It’s unclear what the leave means for Armstrong’s future in the department. In Oakland, the mayor, city administrator and Police Commission have the authority to fire the police chief.

Former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf appointed Armstrong, an Oakland native who has worked for the department for 24 years, in 2021. His appointment came after the Police Commission and Schaaf fired Anne Kirkpatrick after three years on the job. The city paid out $1.5 million to Kirkpatrick in July after a jury found that she was wrongfully terminated.

At his swearing-in, Armstrong vowed to be a visible leader focused on achieving a cultural change that would lead to the end of federal oversight. Oakland has gone through 11 police chiefs in the past 21 years. Four took and left the job within the span of nine days in 2016.

The report was released this week by Judge William Orrick, who said sharing the findings of the investigation would allow for “greater public transparency and accountability” and to ensure the department is able to achieve the “cultural change necessary for compliance.”

Jim Chanin, one of the Riders case plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the investigation showed deficiencies in the department’s command and leadership staff.

“This was a systemic failure at the highest level,” Chanin said. As a result, Chanin called for the probationary period to be revoked. That decision will ultimately be made by Orrick.

The Police Department referred questions to City Attorney Barbara Parker, who declined to comment.

In October, Brigid Martin, an attorney for the city, took issue in a previous filing with the court monitor for calling the investigations “deeply troubling” and praised the department.

“As the Department makes every effort to curb a dramatic rise in deadly violence for the third year in a row, it does so with a firm foundation of Constitutional policing principles,” Martin wrote.

Orrick’s order last year was a victory for the department, which has been under federal oversight due to a lawsuit dating from 2000 in which six men in West Oakland argued they were falsely arrested on drug charges and who accused four officers, known as “the Riders,” of assaulting and conspiring to frame them.

Three of the officers were tried on criminal charges and never convicted, and a fourth officer fled and remains a fugitive. The civil case resulted in a settlement that required the department to complete dozens of tasks to improve the way it tracks, trains and disciplines officers.

At the time of last year’s hearing, the department still had to complete one task: reducing disparities in discipline among officers. Orrick praised Armstrong at the time for his “laser-focus” on reform goals.

But late last year, the court-appointed monitor, Robert Warshaw, determined that the department fell out of compliance with how to handle internal investigations after revelations about the misconduct cases from 2021 and 2022.

In March 2021, an Oakland sergeant who was driving a police-issued Chevrolet Tahoe in a parking garage collided with a car in an adjacent parking stall, according to the law firm’s investigation. An Oakland officer was a passenger in the Chevrolet Tahoe. Neither the sergeant nor the officer was identified.

The crash resulted in the front bumper of the parked car being ripped off. Neither officer got out of the car to check the damage before driving off about five seconds later. And neither officer reported the incident to their supervising officers.

Oakland police became aware of the collision in July 2021, two months after the city received an insurance claim for the damage to the parked vehicle, when a lieutenant was asked to identify the driver of the vehicle. That lieutenant then ordered the sergeant to file a report with San Francisco police.

In October, the Police Department opened an internal investigation into the incident. During the course of the investigation, an investigator determined that the sergeant and officer involved in the collision were in a romantic relationship, but failed to report it per department rules.

The internal investigation found that the sergeant violated department rules by hitting the parked car and failing to report it. It also called into question the sergeant and officer’s credibility for failing to disclose the incident.

A captain of internal affairs reviewed the report and directed the investigator to change it in a way that the internal investigator believed “minimized the severity of the misconduct and allowed the sergeant to avoid the appropriate consequences for his actions,” according to the law firm’s investigation. The sergeant received counseling and training as part of his discipline. The report did not detail what the consequences should have been.

When the internal investigator presented his findings and recommendations to executive command staff and Armstrong, he did not mention that the sergeant and officer were in an unreported dating relationship, the law firm’s report said. His presentation only included the preventable vehicle collision. Armstrong “did not permit extensive discussion of the case” and didn’t allow for video footage of the crash to be shown, according to the outside investigation. Instead, he “quickly” approved the findings.

In April 2022, that same sergeant was working a shift when he discharged his firearm in an elevator at the Police Department headquarters downtown. Other police staff noticed a strike mark on the wall of the elevator the next day, and an investigation was opened, according to the outside investigation.

More than a week after the discharge, the sergeant admitted to the investigator that he had discharged his firearm and discarded the evidence by throwing it into the bay while driving on the Bay Bridge.

The law firm concluded that while some deficiencies are a result of gaps in department policies, other problems are a result of the agency’s lack of follow-through and policy implementation.

“Most disturbingly, some of the deficits appear to stem from a failure of leadership and a lack of commitment to hold members of the Oakland Police Department accountable for violations of its own rules,” the law firm wrote.

John Burris, another of the Riders case plaintiffs’ attorneys, said he was disappointed in the report but hadn’t made up his mind yet on whether the department’s probationary period should be revoked. He said he needs more answers.

“Certainly, I am concerned,” Burris said. “It raises question about the overall leadership of the department.”

Sarah Ravani (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani