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5 Oakland cops were wrongly fired in fatal shooting of armed homeless man, judge rules

City employees “improperly manipulated” an outside investigator’s report that had initially found the shooting justified, a judge said

joshua pawlik shooting

Oakland Police Department

By Annie Sciacca
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND — City officials wrongly fired five Oakland police officers who rustled a homeless man from his sleep and fatally shot him in 2018, an Alameda County judge has determined.

In a court order issued Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch sided with the officers, who filed a legal complaint after losing their jobs. Roesch found that city employees “improperly manipulated” an outside investigator’s report that initially concluded the officers were unjustly fired and should have kept their jobs. The judge’s order didn’t identify the city employees.

Michael Rains, an attorney who represented the officers, said the judge’s decision clears the path to allowing them to either return to work for the Oakland Police Department or get retroactive pay. It’s not clear what the officers will do, Rains said, noting that most of them are now working for other law enforcement agencies.

Karen Boyd, the city’s communications director, issued a statement saying, “We believe we adhered to the letter and spirit of the labor agreement, and believe the Court erred in finding otherwise. We remain committed to ensuring our employees are afforded due process in all disciplinary processes.” She did not indicate whether the city would appeal the decision.

The officers fired shots at Joshua Pawlik, 31, in North Oakland on March 11, 2018. Pawlik was armed and asleep in a small space between two homes. Officers positioned themselves behind an armored vehicle and yelled at him to wake up when he began moving, a video the department released showed.

While the officers alleged Pawlik was about to raise the gun on the ground next to him when he was shot, attorneys for Pawlik’s family — who settled a lawsuit with the city over his death for $1.4 million in 2020 — have argued he was not poised to shoot the officers.

The actions on that day were the subject of multiple investigations, including several internal probes by the police department that concluded the officers had not violated Oakland’s use of force policies. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office did not charge the officers, and the Community Police Review Agency cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

But Robert Warshaw, a federal court-appointed monitor who oversees the police department as part of a long-standing court decree, stepped in and ruled that the shooting was unreasonable and violated department policies.

A committee of the Oakland Police Commission, which oversees the Community Police Review Agency and monitors police conduct and investigations, agreed with Warshaw. As a result, the five officers — William Berger, Craig Tanaka, Brandon Hraiz and Josef Phillips, and their supervisor, Sgt. Francisco Negrete — were fired.

The officers sued to get their jobs back, initiating a grievance process codified by the police department’s union contract and city policy.

The city subsequently hired an outside attorney, Jeffrey Sloan, to review the case and determine whether the officers should have been terminated. Sloan found in February 2021 that the officers should be exonerated of the claim that they violated department policy and that their firing “lacked just cause.”

According to the judge’s order, however, the unnamed city employees instructed Sloan to “amend” his report and revise his “determinations” as “recommendations.” The city then told the officers it could not resolve their grievances over their firing.

Under the judge’s order, the officers have the right to continue the grievance process, which would allow them to accept Sloan’s report and move on or pursue arbitration.

Rains said he sees no reason the officers would appeal the decision, considering the judge found in their favor. The next step for them is to decide whether to try and get their old jobs back or collect retroactive pay, he said.

He estimated the latter option could cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At least four of the officers found employment at other law enforcement agencies, The Oaklandside reported last year. It cited state records in reporting that Berger and Tanaka became Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, Hraiz joined the Emeryville Police Department, and Negrete joined the Solano County Sheriff’s Office.

A separate investigation into a racist, sexist Instagram account run by former Oakland police officers found that the account was created by one of the officers involved in the killing of Pawlik The report did not identify the officer by name, saying only that the account was created by “an individual who provided an email address that is associated with a recently-terminated OPD officer … the subject of an internal affairs investigation related to an officer-involved shooting in March 2018.”

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