An out-of-control group of Oakland police officers who called themselves "The Riders" waged their personal war on drugs in an 18-month reign of terror in West Oakland, but now have been blown from the saddle -- ambushed by a rookie cop who could not stomach their "anything goes" methods. The rookie has since left the force.
After a two-month Oakland Police Department internal investigation, Police Chief Richard Word recommended last month that the four officers be fired for numerous acts of brutality, planting evidence, and falsifying police reports. They are currently on paid suspension. The officers are accused of at least a dozen instances of mistreating suspects, including one case in which the victim suffered a broken collarbone and another in which the victim was taken to a remote spot and beaten while handcuffed. Numerous persons arrested by the four accuse the officers of planting drugs on them.
But the fall-out is just beginning. The Alameda County District Attorney's office has dismissed drug charges "in a handful of cases," but local authorities told the San Francisco Chronicle that more could follow. Some convictions could be overturned or the defendants resentenced, they said.
"There is certainly a level of outrage over the prospect of a wrongfully convicted client serving time in a state penitentiary," Assistant Public Defender Ray Keller told the Chronicle.
Keller also complained that the officers not only filed false reports, but committed perjury in court.
"You have cops committing active perjury in a courtroom, and that has not been emphasized," he said. "This may have the biggest effect on the criminal justice system in that juries and judges are being lied to."
Keller said the perjury issue is the primary reason for the dismissed cases. "How do you prove one way or another when you've got demonstrably lying cops?" he asked.
Keller is leading an Alameda County Public Defenders office probe of Riders cases. He told the Chronicle the office has found at least 150 questionable drug arrests linked to the four and that he expected more to follow.
The Alameda County District Attorney's Office will announce soon whether criminal charges will be filed against the four. And at the request of Chief Word, the FBI is conducting an investigation to see whether the officers violated suspects' civil rights.
Despite Chief Word's quick response, one long-time local observer of the Oakland police said the allegations indicated broader problems within the department.
"If they didn't hide their actions from a rookie officer, there is significant reason to be concerned that other officers either did know or should have known about these allegations but did not take action," San Francisco-based ACLU attorney John Crew told the San Jose Mercury.
The Riders scandal only adds fuel to a long-simmering dispute over civilian oversight of the Oakland police department. For the last five years, citizens have attempted to gain some control over the department. The ACLU and citizen's groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the mandate of police civilian review board, arguing that city officials illegally negotiated its terms in secret meetings with the police union.
"You shouldn't leave it to the police to police themselves," said Crew.
Meanwhile, however, the California Supreme Court has approved another questionable Oakland drug enforcement tactic. The Oakland city council had passed an ordinance allowing police to seize the vehicles of drivers who try to buy drugs or solicit prostitutes. If the city proves in court that the vehicle was being used for those purposes, it can sell the vehicle at auction, with the proceeds to be split among police and prosecutors.
Cars can be seized even if no one is ever found guilty of a crime and even if the owner is unaware of any illegal activity.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the ordinance conflicted with a more restrictive state asset forfeiture law, but in July the 1st District Court of Appeals ruled that localities could pass ordinances stricter than state law. Last week, the California Supreme Court declined to review the appeals court ruling.
The state legislature last year passed a bill that would have banned such ordinances, but Democratic Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it.
Across the bay, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month rejected a similar proposal on an 8-3 vote.
The ACLU's Alan Schlosser, who appealed the case to the Supreme Court, called the court's action "disappointing," but told the San Francisco Examiner that other legal issues remain unresolved. Schlosser said proportionality remains an issue. He cited the seizure of a $5,000 truck over the purchase of $20 worth of marijuana, which an Oakland judge ruled was disproportionate, and said a similar case will soon reach the appellate court.