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Oakland Pays for Police Abuse

Times Staff Writer

In a case compared to the LAPD’s Rampart Division scandal, Oakland city officials have agreed to pay $10.9 million to scores of minorities who claim they were beaten and falsely charged by four outlaw police officers known as the Riders, officials announced Wednesday.

The 59-page civil settlement, unveiled at a news conference in downtown Oakland, imposes a series of reforms on the 700-officer Oakland Police Department. The changes include the development of an early warning system to identify problem officers and closer contact between police brass and officers on the street. Overseeing the reforms for at least five years will be an independent monitor who will report to a federal judge.

City Atty. John Russo said the payment in the 2-year-old case was a bargain-basement settlement for the struggling blue-collar city of 395,000, compared to the estimated $42 million paid by Los Angeles to settle 96 of about 190 Rampart cases.

But Los Angeles officials bristled at the Rampart comparison, saying the two cases bear little resemblance.

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The Oakland settlement brings a close to a sweeping federal class-action lawsuit in which 119 alleged victims of the Riders claimed the officers -- three of whom are now on trial in Oakland -- faked evidence, planted rock cocaine and other drugs and beat up suspects. More than 80 victims, most of them African American men, were incarcerated and served from a few hours to up to 500 days behind bars. Many later had their cases dismissed.

Lawyers say the money -- minus attorneys’ fees -- will be allotted to victims depending on how much time they spent in jail and on the extent of the physical abuse they suffered. The lowest payment will be $10,000, the highest more than $500,000.

“This settlement is very important for our clients, who had to endure the unendurable,” said co-counsel James Chanin. “As a result of their treatment at the hands of these officers, they’ve suffered a breakup of their families, loss of jobs, probation and a total of 40 years in jail. All for things they did not do.”

Russo defended both the settlement and the quality of the Police Department.

“Many urban police departments have problems with aggressive officers, and Oakland is no exception,” he said. “In a large department with so many officers under stress, people are bound to not follow protocol and cut corners. But the city did not just stick its head in the sand and hope this will all go away. We’re not so insecure as a government that we can’t recognize our own faults and move quickly to correct them.”

The four veteran ex-cops, who worked the graveyard shift in the city’s tough northwest corner, were arrested on charges including kidnapping, falsifying arrest reports and assault. Three -- Matthew Hornung, 31; Clarence Mabanag, 37; and Jude Siapno, 34 -- are currently on trial in Alameda Superior Court. Frank “Choker” Vazquez, 46, the alleged ringleader of the Riders, is believed to have fled to Mexico.

The case stems from accusations made by a 23-year-old rookie cop who spent two weeks in 1999 patrolling predominantly black west Oakland with the four officers before quitting the force, reportedly in disgust.

Russo said the four officers were not acting for personal gain and instead identified them as “Clint Eastwood-types. Tough cops who didn’t play by the rules. They were overzealous.”

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Apparently referring to the victims, Russo added: “Even bad guys have constitutional rights. Things have to be done the right way.”

But activists say the department’s discipline problems run much deeper than four officers.

“The department created the framework for these men to operate,” said Rashidah Grinage, a member of the group People United for a Better Oakland. “For years there has been lax supervision. People have turned a blind eye. I call it benign neglect. But to lay the troubles off on four solitary officers is grossly inaccurate.”

Russo said the sweeping reforms would begin with the establishment of a 24-hour citizen complaint line.

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“We’re also going to have at least 10 more supervisors on the streets,” Russo said. “There will be better communication with top brass.”

Under the deal, supervisors would be required to report to a scene whenever force is used and county prosecutors would be dispatched in all lethal-force cases.

The settlement is expected to be finalized by the Oakland City Council next month.

Grinage said activists will try to ensure that the city does not appoint as its monitor a former police officer, as some other cities have done. She said activists will try to assure that improvements continue after the watchdog is gone.

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Grinage said activists will study similar settlements in cities including Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y., and see if the deal can be improved.

“We think we did pretty well by the people of Oakland,” Russo said. “In Los Angeles, the money they paid for document production alone is staggering.”

Eric Moses, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, ridiculed the comparison. He acknowledged that the city has paid out $42 million to settle 96 Rampart-related cases, with another 95 cases unresolved.

“It’s irrelevant to compare these two cases,” Moses said. “We have a different set of facts. We have had issues getting information from the Police Department in a timely manner. And the Rampart case was much more pervasive than just four officers.”

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