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Oakland mayor rejects entire police chief candidate list

The police chief position has been open since February, when Mayor Sheng Thao suspended and subsequently fired former Chief LeRonne Armstrong


Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao leaves a press conference at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., on April 20, 2023. The Oakland A’s have agreed to buy land in Las Vegas and build a new stadium there, team officials confirmed Wednesday. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Dai Sugano/TNS

By Jakob Rodgers and Shomik Mukherjee
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao has rejected all finalists for the city’s police chief job, leaving the vacant position in limbo again, nearly a year after she placed the last permanent chief on leave and then fired him.

In a statement, Thao’s office said she wanted the Oakland Police Commission to supply her with a new list of candidates to lead the department, which has been without a permanent leader since February.

“The Oakland Police Chief leads a critical component of the mayor’s comprehensive community safety strategy,” Thao’s statement said. “Mayor Thao thanks the Oakland Police Commission for their continued service and looks forward to working with the commissioners to select the best possible candidate for Oakland.”

The move marks the latest twist in a saga that began in January, when Thao placed the OPD’s former chief, LeRonne Armstrong, on leave after a report that found “systemic deficiencies” in how his department investigated misconduct cases.

Thao fired Armstrong nearly a month later, citing his public statements downplaying the actions of a police sergeant whose misconduct led to a series of cover-ups by higher-ranking officers. Armstrong also publicly criticized the mayor and OPD’s federal monitor, Robert Warshaw.

Despite being let go, Armstrong continued to enjoy support among many people in the community, including members of the Oakland Police Commission. In October, his name was the only one publicized on a list of 18 candidates for the job that was compiled by three outgoing members of the police commission.

Marsha Peterson, chair of the police commission, said in a statement on Wednesday evening that, “we respect the mayor’s decision” to request a new list of candidates. Peterson vowed to work with Thao.

“The Oakland Police Commission will continue to perform our duty under the City Charter to review candidates and provide recommendations to the Mayor,” Peterson’s statement said. “The commission will work collaboratively and diligently with the Mayor to find exceptional candidates for Oakland.

Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, in a phone interview Wednesday, confirmed the names of the three finalists as Armstrong; San Leandro police Chief Abdul Pridgen and Kevin Hall, an assistant chief in Tucson, Ariz.

Pridgen, who was a finalist for the job Armstrong ultimately got in 2021, has been on administrative leave in San Leandro for unspecified reasons.

Gallo expressed frustration over the process.

“The police chief is the most important position we have and we have been waiting for months and months to fill the vacancy,” Gallo said. He still stands firmly behind Armstrong, even though Thao fired him earlier this year. “I need someone with experience but most of all knows Oakland. I still support him and would love to get him back.”

In a statement, Armstrong said it was “unfair that I am unable to continue to serve and protect the people of Oakland. He added that “as a native of Oakland, nothing gave me greater pleasure and pride than to work in my community and fight to improve it.”

Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, called the move “staggeringly frustrating” and questioned how the city could go so long without a permanent police chief. He said the ongoing lack of a decision on the position had a “cascading effect” on the department’s ability to make long-term planning decisions.

“I’m disheartened by this whole process,” Donelan said. “Eleven months with no police chief? It’s unfair to the residents. It’s unfair to the officers who are serving them. It just demonstrates that in the city of Oakland, they can’t get anything over the goal line.”

The gap in hiring a new chief is a long one, even for Oakland, which has cycled through several chiefs over the past decade. After Chief Sean Whent resigned in 2016, the city went without a chief for seven months until Anne Kirkpatrick was hired. When she was fired, Armstrong eventually took over.

Since voters approved Measure LL in 2018, the Oakland Police Commission has been in charge of police chief searches. It is up to the members to select finalists and send them to the mayor, who can pick one or reject them all.

In 2020, then-Mayor Libby Schaaf selected Armstrong from a group of four candidates. At the time, the commission and the mayor held an open forum where members of the public could hear from the finalists. That was a break from tradition and this time City Hall returned to having no public airing of the police chief finalists.

Jim Chanin, a civil-rights attorney whose lawsuit against OPD two decades ago led to the department being placed under federal oversight, urged the commission and Thao’s office to work together to finally put an end to the ongoing vacancy.

“We can’t play games with the public safety of the people of Oakland,” Chanin said. “The parties have to sit down and find someone they can agree on, and put that person in there as quickly as possible.”

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