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What Happened When Oakland Tried to Make Police Pay for Misconduct Decades Ago

In the ’90s, the city passed a policy requiring the police department to pay some of their own legal costs. There’s no evidence that the department ever paid up.

The doorway to a police station in downtown Oakland, California.iStock

This story was published in partnership with Type Investigations, where Ahmad was an Ida B. Wells fellow.

On Dec. 3, 1993, Rashidah Grinage’s family of six was reduced to four. Her 21-year-old son, Luke, had gotten engaged that morning, and had recently interviewed for a new job. But when police arrived at her Oakland, California, home seeking to impound Luke’s dog, a gun fight broke out. Luke and his father, Raphael, a double amputee who used a wheelchair, were killed, along with an officer. It wasn’t until five years later that Grinage became aware of an audio cassette tape recorded by one of the officers, revealing that police had failed to follow protocol around de-escalation and resorted to force within minutes of encountering Luke.

Grinage vowed to hold the department accountable for its actions that day. “Back in 1993, I made a pledge to myself,” she told Type and The Appeal. “And that pledge was that the Oakland Police Department will truly regret that they ever came to my home.”

The year after she lost her son and her husband, Grinage joined a grassroots organization called People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), and immediately began working on proposals that focused on reining in police misconduct. One of the biggest issues she found was the steady, unchecked increase in the police department’s share of Oakland’s overall budget. The city used vague and inconsistent metrics to justify the increases, and asked few questions about how the department used the funds. The approach to the police budget in Oakland was “divorced from any benchmarks or deliverables,” Grinage said.

It would be more than a quarter-century until the uprising in response to George Floyd’s murder would make “defund the police” a nationally recognized slogan, and there was little scrutiny of U.S. cities that had made a practice of rubber-stamping police budget increases. But Grinage identified a frustrating trend that continues today: Police funding remains largely untouched, even when departments routinely cost their cities millions of dollars in excessive force lawsuits and civil rights settlements. Instead, it’s city taxpayers who usually get stuck with the bill.

Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA School of Law, studies this dynamic and through her research has demonstrated that police departments rarely take financial responsibility for lawsuits. In her study of 100 law enforcement agencies across the country, she found that 58 percent of cities with the largest police departments do not require them to contribute funds toward settlements and judgments. Of the cities included in Schwartz’s study, budgeting practices insulate at least 80 percent of their law enforcement agencies from any financial effects of misconduct payouts.

Recognizing this disconnect, activists across the country have pushed for policy changes that they say would disincentivize police misconduct by making police departments financially liable for payouts stemming from these cases. In Oakland, the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force—assembled in the wake of protests over police violence and racism in 2020—has put forth a recommendation, known as Rec 44, that would shift costs related to misconduct settlements away from taxpayers and toward police. While settlements and judgments are currently pulled from the city’s general fund, Rec 44 suggests alternatives, including automatically deducting funds from the union dues paid by officers or out of an officer’s retirement savings, until the city is reimbursed.

Any of these recommendations, if adopted by the city council, could create more accountability for police and provide a blueprint for other cities to follow. But Grinage’s experience advocating for a similar restructuring decades earlier shows the limitations of such a policy.

A Lesson From the Past

In 1997, Grinage and PUEBLO introduced the Risk Management Incentive Program (RMIP) in hopes of creating a better system of financial accountability for Oakland’s police department—as well as the city’s fire, public works, and parks and recreation departments. 

The concept was simple. Each department would receive a certain amount of funds each fiscal year to cover liability claims and legal expenses. If a department’s costs amounted to less than the pre-allocated amount, the excess funds would flow back into their discretionary budget. If liability costs exceeded the limit, the department would have to pay 25 percent of the excess amount back to the general fund, while the general fund would cover the other 75 percent. The goal, advocates said, was to offer a monetary incentive for departments to limit behaviors that lead to lawsuits.

Oakland’s city council passed and adopted the plan in 1997. But by 2004, a year after the conclusion of a federal civil rights lawsuit that produced the city’s largest payout for police brutality to date, the council approved then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s proposal to discontinue RMIP. At the time, Oakland had begun distributing a $10.5 million settlement to 119 victims of police brutality in the city’s notorious Riders scandal. For years spanning the late 1990s and early 2000s, four officers known as the “Rough Riders” were found to have beaten citizens in West Oakland, planted and falsified evidence, and unlawfully detained civilians under the guise of cleaning up the neighborhood and getting alleged drug dealers off the street. It took a rookie cop witnessing the abuse and resigning after just 10 days on the job for internal affairs to begin looking into the misconduct. Although all four of the officers involved were fired, three were later acquitted of criminal charges, while the fourth fled to avoid prosecution and remains a fugitive from justice today. 

The Riders scandal was a national embarrassment for the Oakland Police Department. But rather than accept full responsibility—including financial responsibility—police officials pressed the city council to do away with RMIP, claiming they’d be unable to pay their share of the settlement without risking public safety. According to a council agenda report in July 2003, “OPD has stated that it is impossible to reduce their budget by this amount without impacting services.” The council went on to write that “OPD would need to be spared the disincentive, or else have police cars be taken off the street.” Months later, RMIP was no more.

Broken Promises

The quick dissolution of the program raised Grinage’s suspicion. When she asked the city’s financial department what metrics were being used to argue that RMIP was not worth continuing, they responded with a shocking development: City officials could find no evidence that any of the departments covered under RMIP had transferred a single dime back to the general fund for exceeding their liability budget. 

On Sept. 23, 2003, Grinage received a letter from Assistant City Manager George Musgrove stating that such transfers “have never been authorized by the City Council based on staff’s recommendation that such an action would have negatively impacted funding for many of the services provided” by the departments.

Over six years, the city council had spent hours of meeting time discussing RMIP, presenting budgetary adjustments, and proposing resolutions that calculated exactly how much each department owed to the general fund for overages. But the city council ultimately tabled many of these proposed resolutions, meaning the departments never had to pay the funds they owed.

Type and The Appeal did find at least one resolution that was authorized by city council and signed by a city clerk in 2000, directing the police department to repay $108,188. That resolution should have resulted in a record of a financial transfer, according to one official working in the city’s risk management department at the time. But a public records request did not produce any documentation of transfers from the police budget back to the general fund.

Former city officials confirmed to Type and The Appeal that they had no recollection of any such transfer taking place. A spokesperson for the city administration said current staff were not familiar with RMIP. John Russo, who served on the city council from 1994 to 2000, was surprised when he read the letter from the city. “We thought we had achieved something,” he told Type and The Appeal. “The reports were coming back and certainly the report didn’t say at the outset, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot for this policy, we’re just not doing it.’ And so, I think we all just worked on the assumption that this [was functioning].” 

The problem with RMIP “was not the policy,” Russo added. “The problem was political.” 

City officials argued that RMIP was not workable in large part because the police department was racking up misconduct costs far beyond what it could pay for. Documents related to the disbanding of the program pointed to the Riders settlement as an example, noting that the police department would face a budget reduction of approximately $2.5 million if it were made to abide by the terms of RMIP. 

“There is no disagreement that the City must bring accountability for police liability cases,” the city’s report stated. “The issue to address is whether budget reductions will accomplish this and/or whether budget reductions are the best way to address these issues.”

A Different Approach

It’s hard to know if RMIP would have worked to reduce officer misconduct. Data on similar liability programs is limited, because many jurisdictions are accustomed to shouldering the costs associated with settlements and judgments against police. Some jurisdictions, like Los Angeles County and Kansas City, do make their police forces pay settlements out of their own budgets, and sometimes impose constraints when litigation is costly. Schwartz, the law professor, says that while financial liability alone can’t reform policing, governments should consider them as “additional tools in the arsenal” to change police behaviors. Still, she notes that such policies are meaningless unless officials are willing to uphold them. 

“I understand why there are political pressures for politicians not to enforce financial sanctions on police departments,” said Schwartz. “But if officials succumb to those pressures, innovative policies to make departments bear some costs of their officers’ misconduct will have no teeth.” 

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, who took office in 2021, argues that a financial penalty on the department as a whole would do little to discourage misconduct because it would not, in theory, target the officers responsible for the behavior. Instead, Armstrong says that cities can reduce liability simply by creating a stronger system of individual accountability, so that officers “understand that their actions are going to lead to significant and severe consequences.”

After Oakland ended the Risk Management Incentive Program, the police department entered into a negotiated settlement agreement with the victims in the Riders case. Civil rights attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris, who represented the plaintiffs in that case, recognized that individual payouts were not stopping the pattern of police abuse, so they helped develop a list of court-ordered “tasks” intended to change the culture of policing in Oakland. (Note: this reporter interned for Burris in 2017.) The agreement called for, among other things, the creation of policies governing use-of-force reporting and an officer-involved shooting investigations review protocol.

But that reform effort has seen mixed results. The department was slow to meet many of the standards laid out in the agreement, and continued to attract national attention for police abuse scandals over the years. Chanin and Burris recently reported that OPD had made significant progress on many of the agreement’s tasks, bringing it closer to the end of federal oversight. Still, the department has periodically experienced backsliding, and it’s unclear if the reforms will stick once federal monitoring ends. 

If the negotiated settlement agreement winds down in the near future, Oakland taxpayers will have paid over $30 million for the independent monitoring team and associated fees. More than $80 million in public funds have also gone toward settlements and other associated costs related to police misconduct since the Riders case originated.

Throughout all of this, officials in Oakland have remained hesitant to take any action that could reduce the police budget, directly or indirectly. In 2020, less than a month after George Floyd’s death, the Oakland city council cut $12 million from the police department and redirected some of those funds to social services. But by the end of 2021, the council had reversed that plan and approved more funding for the police department to recruit more officers, bringing the department’s budget to $336 million in the most recent fiscal year. Many other proposed reforms are still under consideration.

Advocates in Oakland remain hopeful that the city council will act upon some of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force’s 155 recommendations around reforming the police department. And after three decades of work on police reform, Grinage knows it’ll take more than hope to accomplish real change. When she recalls the pledge she made to herself decades ago, Grinage believes she has succeeded in making the Oakland police regret that day in 1993. But she’s not planning to take the pressure off the department anytime soon. 

“I will continue to make that a motivating factor in the rest of what I can accomplish,” said Grinage. “Because they never paid a price of any sort.”