By Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An investigator appointed by a U.S. federal judge said the city of Oakland, California has failed to discipline problem police officers "time and again," as police tactics are under increased scrutiny across the U.S., according to a court filing on Thursday.
Disciplining problem officers is viewed by police reform advocates as a crucial tool for maintaining community trust – something that is taking on heightened importance after aggressive police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City sparked national protests.
The Oakland investigation started after an arbitrator reinstated a police officer who was heavily criticized for firing tear gas at a crowd of protesters during Occupy protests in 2011. That followed a series of other cases in which arbitrators overruled disciplinary actions for Oakland police.
In his report on Thursday, investigator Edward Swanson said Oakland's city attorney frequently lost arbitrations against police officers because the office handled cases "haphazardly, often waiting until the last minute to prepare for hearings or to assign cases to outside counsel."
Swanson interviewed several witnesses who expressed concerns that Oakland's city attorney may have chosen outside lawyers based on campaign contributions. However, based on the documents Swanson reviewed, "we did not find that it hired outside counsel for police discipline cases based on pay-to-play," the filing said.
A representative for Oakland's city attorney could not immediately be reached for comment. In comments to Reuters last year, Oakland city attorney Barbara Parker said it is "categorically untrue" that contributions play any role in how the city hires lawyers.
Oakland police have been under court oversight since 2003, when the city agreed to a raft of reforms to settle a civil rights lawsuit. In ordering the Swanson probe earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson wrote "imposition of discipline is meaningless if it is not final."
The report on Thursday said the way Oakland handles police discipline has eroded the faith many have in the process.
"A broken discipline process means bad officers remain on the force – a clear threat to public safety," the report said. "It also means good officers lose faith in the process. And it erodes the public's trust in local law enforcement."
(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Chris Reese)