Our Backyard: Oakland Council Has No Reason to Fear the Police Union

The union is attempting to weaken a police accountability measure, and the city council shouldn’t let it happen.


Daniel Arauz/Flickr

During the past two days, Black Lives Matter protesters have finally directed their ire at the correct target in Oakland: The police union. Demonstrators have chained themselves to the headquarters of Oakland Police Officers’ Association, or OPOA, in downtown. And for good reason: During the past few decades, the OPOA has been the single biggest obstacle to reforming the city’s police force, reducing officer misconduct, and bringing an end to killings by police of people of color in The Town. And right now, the OPOA is working overtime to weaken a landmark police accountability measure proposed for the November ballot.

Traditionally, the Oakland police union has gotten what it wanted through fear and threats. Councilmembers and mayors have cowered at the prospect of the OPOA withholding campaign contributions or funding political opponents in the next election should elected officials decide to say “no.”

In truth, however, Oakland politicians have no real reason to fear the OPOA, because the union’s track record in city political campaigns has been abysmal, records show. Indeed, during the past three election cycles, the union’s money and influence have repeatedly failed to affect the outcome at the ballot box. There’s even evidence to suggest that Oaklanders now tend to vote against whomever the police union supports.

As such, the council should stop giving in to the union’s demands, and should push forward with a ballot measure next week that would create a strong, independent civilian police commission in Oakland—a commission that would have the power to fire bad cops and terminate police chiefs who refuse to hold officers accountable.

Here is why:

In the 2010 election, the OPOA endorsed ex-state Senator Don Perata for mayor, and then worked hard to defeat his opponents Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan. Police even went to far as to try to intimidate Quan and Kaplan with a “criminal investigation” after the two councilmembers had marched alongside anti-police violence protesters during an Oscar Grant demonstration in downtown. In the end, though, the police money and intimidation tactics went nowhere. Quan won the mayor’s race, and Kaplan nearly beat Perata, too.

In 2012 election, the OPOA failed miserably across the board. That year, the union spent big to unseat two incumbents: Kaplan in her council reelection campaign against Ignacio De La Fuente, and City Attorney Barbara Parker in her reelection bid against Jane Brunner. But Kaplan and Parker both won in landslides. That year, the OPOA also backed council candidate Amy Lemley for the open District One seat (North Oakland). But Lemley lost to Dan Kalb. It’s worth noting that Kalb is now the strongest, most vocal proponent on the council for the civilian police commission ballot measure, and that Kaplan and Parker also support reform. (It’s also worth noting that Lemley did not welcome the OPOA’s support for fear that it would backfire.)

In 2014, the OPOA, apparently stung by its big losses in the prior two election cycles, decided to sit out the mayor’s race, declining to back any of the candidates in the contest. The one candidate it did support strongly that year was Annie Campbell Washington in the race for the council's open District Four seat, Montclair-Laurel. Records show the OPOA spent $18,983 on Campbell Washington’s behalf. But it’s worth pointing out that Campbell Washington got a lot of labor support in 2014. Overall, Oakland unions spent more than $100,000 helping her defeat landlord representative Jill Broadhurst. So the OPOA’s backing, while helpful to Campbell Washington, was not decisive. However, it’s also worth mentioning that Campbell Washington has been hesitant to put a strong civilian police commission measure on this year’s ballot.

In short, the OPOA and its money went 1-4 in the past three citywide elections. That’s a record that should not instill fear in anyone.

And that’s especially true at a time when there’s a growing recognition nationwide that U.S. police departments are in serious need of reform and killings by police must stop.       

Our Backyard is an occasional opinion column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

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