Oakland’s Inspector General Michelle Phillips talks community oversight of the OPD

Michelle-Phillips-IMG_0102rt_pp-1_2022-08-22-221251_pahm, Oakland’s Inspector General Michelle Phillips talks community oversight of the OPD, News & Views

by JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information

Oakland is making some interesting moves around holding police accountable for terrorizing the community, perjury, buying off witnesses, and more, with the recent election of District Attorney Pamela Price. She has reopened eight cases of police misconduct and terrorism and currently has one officer, Phong Tran, in custody awaiting trial. 

The Black Panthers were fighting police terrorism in Oakland in April of 1968 after the murder of its first enlisted member, Lil Bobby Hutton, who was 17 when the police savagely killed him because of their disdain for the Black Panther Party and because of the FBI’s Cointelpro directives to local police departments to disrupt the work of the Black Panther Party by any means. 

In 2003, the activities of a self-proclaimed gang called the Riders within the Oakland Police Department was the reason the Oakland Police Department was sued for over $100 million by 119 people. Since then, the Oakland Police Department has been under federal receivership. The Office of the Inspector General is one of the entities set up to increase community oversight over the Oakland Police Department, and Michelle Phillips from Baltimore is Oakland’s first ever inspector general. I wanted her to explain what her office does so as to provide more community awareness of how Oakland is set up to work. Michelle Phillips provides a lot of intricate details about Oakland’s police terror history, as well as what her office does. 

JR Valrey: What does community civilian oversight of the police look like in Oakland?

Islais Place is now leasing brand new units!
100 apartments at 4840 Mission Street available for lease through DAHLIA San Francisco Housing Portal!

Households must have a minimum monthly income of two times the rent. Households must earn no more than the gross monthly income listed below: Applications and more info available on DAHLIA San Francisco Housing Portal: housing.sfgov.org

The applications deadline is September 28th, 2023 at 5PM. Applications must be submitted online at housing.sfgov.org from September 7 to September 28, 2023. For assistance, contact one of the housing counseling agencies listed at housing.sfgov.org/housing-counselors.

This property has some units with special features for mobility impaired or sensory impaired households. Several preferences apply; learn more at housing.sfgov.org.

Income and other restrictions apply. Section 8 welcome. Equal Housing Opportunity.

Michelle Phillips: Currently, Oakland’s police oversight structure is composed of several entities. In 2016, residents of the City of Oakland voted to approve Measure LL. This measure established the Oakland Police Commission, which is charged with overseeing the OPD policies and procedures as they relate to constitutional policing, procedural justice, equity, and accountability. Measure LL also established the Community Police Review Agency, which is tasked with investigating public complaints of individual allegations of police misconduct.

In 2020, Measure S1 was passed to amend Measure LL and strengthen Oakland’s police reform efforts. Measure S1 established an independent Office of the Inspector General (O.I.G.) that reports directly to the Oakland Police Commission. Measure S1 and the Enabling Ordinance govern the OIG’s jurisdiction and authority.

As the external oversight structures, we are tasked with providing an unbiased assessment of systemic and individual cases of police misconduct. For the Office of the Inspector General and Community Police Review Agency, a part of our explicit mandate is to perform these duties in an independent, non-partisan and community-centered manner.   

JR Valrey: How did the Riders case in 2003 affect community oversight of the police in Oakland?

Michelle Phillips: Delphine Allen, et al., v. City of Oakland, et al, also known as the Riders Case, was the critical case that defined police oversight in Oakland. Plaintiff’s attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin sued the City of Oakland on behalf 119 individuals, resulting in the Negotiated Settlement Agreement and the era of federal oversight. The OPD has been working to achieve full compliance with the 51 tasks outlined in the agreement for the past 20 years. 

In an effort to ensure the Oakland Police Department continues to be held accountable and moves forward to positive police reforms, the civilian oversight structure, Police Commission, Community Police Review Agency and Office of the Inspector General were formed. These entities will be  responsible for civilian oversight of the Oakland Police Department when they are deemed to be in substantial compliance with the Negotiated Settlement Agreement by the federal court. 

JR Valrey: With Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price reopening eight police misconduct cases, do you think that the Oakland Police Department will get out of federal receivership soon?

Michelle Phillips: Given the district attorney is new in her role and still working through many cases, it is too early to make any determination on how this effort could impact federal oversight.

JR Valrey: What is your job as the first inspector general of Oakland?

Michelle Phillips: As the inspector general, my main role is to superintend the auditing arm of Oakland’s civilian oversight of the Oakland Police Department – in alignment with our mission, help to ensure accountability, enhance community trust and increase transparency. This manifests as executing audits, evaluations and reviews of both the Oakland Police Department and Community Police Review Agency. From these assessments, the Office of the Inspector General then provides recommendations and considerations to be implemented or rejected by the applicable action holder. 

JR Valrey: What have you been up to recently as the Inspector General? What are you working on?

Michelle Phillips: Currently, the OIG has been auditing Task 42 of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, which focuses on the Oakland Police Department’s Field Training Program. This is essential because the Police Training Academy is where recruits learn about Oakland Police Department policies, but field training is where they take their initial dive into Oakland police culture. That report will be released within the next couple of months, and the OIG looks forward to receiving feedback from the community.  

Additionally, as the first inspector general, my work has also been focused on developing the office. That includes building out foundational documents like our standard operating procedures and strategic plan, hiring staff, as well as developing our office culture and brand. Right now, our office is essentially a governmental start-up and I feel the deep responsibility of guiding the ship forward. 

JR Valrey: I know that your office is involved in a lot of community education events. What kind of things are y’all educating the community on?

Michelle Phillips: Yes, we are doing a lot of educational awareness campaigns. With Oakland’s police oversight structure being so complex, we are working tirelessly to make information accessible and digestible. Whether that is sharing excerpts of the Oakland Police Department’s policies on social media or hosting community events, we pride ourselves on meeting people where they are. 

Even with Oakland’s rich history of police accountability via the Black Panther Party and modern-day activist groups, in our conversations, we find that there is still a distinct knowledge gap around how our local system works. Many people do not know that there are civilian entities that are tasked with police accountability and specifically oversee police misconduct in Oakland. Our goal is not only to change that but to help generate a greater sense of community trust in the City of Oakland’s ability to hold officers accountable.  

JR Valrey: What has the community response been to the Inspector General’s work? How could the community support you?

Michelle Phillips: The community has embraced the team and our work with open arms. The difficulty is not necessarily navigating their responses – we are major proponents of honest feedback – but creating space for that initial engagement. Therefore, the best way for the community to support is simply to take advantage of existing and future opportunities to connect. Whether that is following our social media platforms, attending one of our upcoming events, or even sending an email, we want to hear people’s perspectives. We would also encourage the community to speak out about their expectations and experiences with the office. 

JR Valrey: What is the Office of the Inspector General’s relationship with the Oakland Police Commission?

Michelle Phillips: The Oakland Police Commission, the Community Police Review Agency, and the Office of the Inspector General are all tasked with providing effective and efficient civilian oversight of the Oakland Police Department. Per the Oakland City Charter, our relationship is symbiotic as each entity is meant to advance the shared goal of ensuring police accountability. For the Office of the Inspector General that is via our work to conduct comprehensive audits that can ideally lead to systemic change. The recommendations of the reports and analysis are to inform the Police Commission of any policy reviews, recommendations or reforms. The Office of the Inspector General is overseen by the Police Commission. 

JR Valrey: Black Oakland and Baltimore, where you are from, have a lot of similarities in dealing with distrust of the police. Can you talk about those and the differences?

Michelle Phillips: Oakland and Baltimore are urban meccas with a lot of pride. But both cities have felt the wrath of the war on drugs, mass incarceration and redlining. As a result of the systemic issues, a survival mentality has developed for both residents and law enforcement. Baltimore City works hard to engage the community and provides a pathway for difficult conversations. I believe Oakland does that as well. We all have a lot to learn from each other and gain understanding that will help to bridge these divides. I recall saying when I first got to Oakland that Oakland is a Baby Baltimore with a rich culture and pride all its own. 

JR Valrey: How could people keep up with the work of the Oakland Inspector General online? 

Michelle Phillips: Follow us on social media @OaklandOIG (Instagram and Twitter) or by searching “City of Oakland, Office of The Inspector General” (LinkedIn and Facebook), visit our website, and sign-up for our newsletter. All of the above! 

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media. He is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.