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Oakland Police Beat - Oakland’s Most Decorated Officers Responsible for High Number of Brutality Lawsuits, Shootings

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An Oakland Police Department officers holds onto a protester while others try to pull him away and prevent his arrest during the May 1, 2012 protests in downtown Oakland. Photo by Glenn Halog.

It was almost noon on an overcast day in East Oakland, home to much of the city’s violent crime, when the three officers spotted the teenage boy. Dark hair, short, sweatpants, and, as they drove by in their unmarked car, something big that the boy was trying to conceal in the waistband of his pants: a gun.The three officers were part of an elite six-man unit that investigated and combated gang activity. By the end of the year, 2008, the unit members would individually make five times as many felony arrests and confiscate 13 times as many firearms as officers in quieter parts of the city.

They were also, based on their own reports, seven times as likely to use force when making an arrest. Over the course of their careers, Sgt. Randolph Brandwood, Eric Milina and Robert Roche were involved in a total of five police shootings, all of which had killed or injured someone. All three officers had also been named in lawsuits accusing them of brutality.

What happened after they backed up and stopped next to the teenager on that spring day is debated. Witnesses said the boy raised his hands above his head; the officers said he pointed a sawed-off rifle at them. They shot him multiple times. The boy, 15-year-old Jose Luis Buenrostro, died soon after at a nearby hospital.It was the second fatal police shooting in Oakland that week and it sparked an outcry. Protesters marched on a local police station. Buenrostro’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, accusing the officers of attempting to hide evidence by moving shell casings and cleaning up blood before police technicians arrived at the shooting scene.

The department’s top brass saw the officers’ actions in a different way. In December 2008, they awarded Brandwood, Milina and Roche the Medal of Valor — the department’s highest honor for bravery — for the shooting. It was second Medal of Valor Roche earned for an officer-involved shooting.

The correlation between use of force and top honors at the Oakland Police Department goes beyond the Buenrostro shooting. Since 2007 the recipients of the department’s most prestigious awards have been involved in significantly more shootings and lawsuits involving allegations of brutality and other types of misconduct than officers who earned lesser awards.

An investigation by Oakland Police Beat — which included a review of police department records, Alameda County District Attorney reports, Oakland City Attorney lawsuit data, and hundreds of federal and state court records — has found that of the 35 officers who have received the most awards and medals:

  • 40 percent were involved in one or more officer-involved shootings, for a total of 29 shootings. Sgt. Patrick Gonzales and officer William Pappas, were each a part of four shootings; Capt. Ersie Joyner III was involved in five.
  • 61 percent were named in civil rights-related lawsuits, in a total of 43 suits. Fourteen officers were named in two or more cases.
  • At least four were members of the small tactical squads, called Tango Teams, that used chemical agents as well as beanbag and explosive projectiles during violent clashes with Occupy Oakland demonstrators in 2011 and 2012. (Oakland has spent more than $6 million to settle lawsuits stemming from those clashes.)

The top 35 most-decorated officers work in a wide spectrum of roles ranging from gang and drug task forces, to traffic investigation units, to training. By comparison, the top 100 officers who’ve received lesser awards also work in the same range of jobs. But only 30 have been named in lawsuits and 15 were involved in a police shooting. (See How We Analyzed Our Police Officer Data for our ranking methodology.)

We were unable to expand our investigation before 2007. According to the Oakland Police Department, they did not keep records of individual officer awards prior to that date.

All of the shootings were considered justified by the Police Department. The Alameda County District Attorney, which investigates police shootings, cleared all of the officers of criminal wrongdoing. Similarly, all of the lawsuits involving these top officers were settled out of court. They were not criminal cases; the city did not admit to any wrongdoing when it settled.

But there is a grim parallel between our findings and what independent commissions created to investigate high-profile scandals at police departments in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, all found: the officers with a history of violent behavior were also the officers that earned some of the most praise and the most awards.