5 observations on the ALCO grand jury’s deferential view of law enforcement

1. Glorified Google search

The Alameda County grand jury involves civil, not criminal matters. The report released by the grand jury last week is not like its more high-profile criminal sibling. This isn’t the Mueller investigation, but an annual potpourri of investigations aimed at government transparency. Most people with better things to do, gloss over the difference. Nonetheless, the civil grand jury’s determinations in the past have carried immense weight within local government discourse. A negative finding can saddle shame on an entire government body for a number of years. An elected official’s adverse appearance in a civil grand jury report can render their re-election in serious doubt. Sadly, those days are over after three years of virtually worthless reports from the Alameda County grand jury. The dearth of any new information from these grand juries is further downgraded by the appearance of the individual reports being nothing more than glorified Google searches based on existing media reports and opinions extrapolated from scant facts. The risk today is that too much weight is now given to the grand jury’s findings. The document produced by this grand jury is shockingly substandard and raises serious questions as to why this body exists. For several years, grand jury reports have lacked direction and purpose. The grand jury has the power and duty to investigate individual complaints, but in most cases covered in this recent report, they choose to based their findings are assumptions and ascribed motives when they could have just interviewed witnesses. This choice to stifle its own power was prevalent in the grand jury’s investigation into alleged charter violations by Alameda Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella.

2. Elected officials appearing to appear to do something wrong

In one section of the report, the grand jury noted former Alameda City Manager Jill Keimach, while recording a conversation between herself, Oddie and Vella, because she believed they were illegally violating Alameda’s charter prohibition on council interference, repeatedly mentioned feeling pressured by the two councilmembers. The grand jury, however, did not weigh the fact Keimach was the only person in the room who knew the conversation was being recorded. Are you pressuring me, Mr. Oddie? Say it louder into this voice recorder located in my right jacket pocket. Essentially, the grand jury purposely chose to overlook Keimach’s intention in recording the meeting was to gain evidence of extortion on the councilmember’s part. They also found no possible motive for Keimach to be untruthful. Same with Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri, who fingered Oddie as threatening Keimach’s job. But perhaps both have strident anti-union tendencies? Maybe other personal factors are involved? The same flimsy rush to add motives to Oddie and Vella, however, was used often by the grand jury, especially for Vella, which they accused of violating the charter, but never provided an specific reason in the report other than a wide-ranging pattern of actions. Furthermore, the grand jury declared the entire scandal was the impetus for a number of high-level city employees leaving Alameda for opportunities elsewhere. The grand jury based this assessment on what other people believed was the reason for the mini-exodus, instead of asking the former employees. Let’s be real. Four older Alamedans out of 19 grand jury members likely held sway over the Alameda portion of the report. Alameda is roughly five percent of all of Alameda County yet made up an disproportionate number of grand jury members. Only Oakland, with six grand jurors, had more. In addition, the grand jury report notes that 40 people issued complaints about the Alameda interference episode. That suggests a concerted effort by Alameda’s dwindling conservative flank to take out Oddie and Vella.

3. Old white people love the police

The prevailing opinion from this grand jury is that members of law enforcement are beyond reproach goes well past believing Alameda’s police chief–just because–but the single most notable part of this entire report. This grand jury made up of possibly 17 of 19 Caucasian seniors made no attempt to conceal their praise and view of the infallibility of local law enforcement. Take the Urban Shield screed that faults the Alameda County Board of Supervisor losing funding for the controversial emergency training and police-palooza in Pleasanton. The ultimate decision by the board earlier this years to pass on funding for Urban Shield was indeed confusing to onlookers. Several press reports got it completely wrong and even some county staff were flummoxed by the board’s initial action. But, by no means was there room to impugn the board’s decision as an instance of poorly-run government. It was a purely political decision made by the board that has festered for several years. The grand jury, however, discounted the concerns of the police accountability activists who believe Urban Shield fostered stereotypes against Muslims and ratcheted up a militaristic ethos at local police departments. Alameda and San Leandro have military-looking tanks within their arsenal, as does Fremont. The grand jury asserts the Board of Supervisors “mismanaged” the entire Urban Shield ad-hoc committee process and therefore, “resulted in the loss of essential regional emergency preparedness training, leaving county residents less safe.” Urban Shield opponents might counter the board’s decision actually made them more safe. The fact of the matter is the grand jury should have spread the blame around and included Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern. His hubris, entitlement, and utter incompetence on this issue is the reason why Urban Shield no longer exists. But this would never fit into a worldview concocted over cheesecake in the kitchen of the Golden Girls. Among several recommendation made by the board to Ahern was to simply rebrand the Urban Shield name. Ahern dug in and then took his ball home. The big takeaway politically from the Urban Shield decision is that the Board of Supervisors finally stood up to Ahern’s inelegant bullying tactics. This report in several instances represents a call for backup by Ahern to the ultimate arbiter of this grand jury report.

4. Death at Santa Rita Jail. Seems fine, says grand jury

Were some scores settled in this grand jury? Looks like. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley technically oversees the grand jury process. One of her lieutenants, Assistant District Attorney Ross Warren is in charge of the grand jury. Warren has long ties to Rep. Eric Swalwell’s congressional campaigns since 2011. There’s a definite thread that connects Ahern, O’Malley, Swalwell, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty in East County’s undercurrent of moderate to right wing politics and praise for law enforcement. In addition to the Alameda councilmembers report, Urban Shield, pro-law enforcement reports in this years grand jury show up in an investigation of Santa Rita Jail’s intake procedures. The grand jury painted a positive view of the situation even though several incidents at the jail had caused serious concern, including the death of a female inmate and a pregnant women who gave birth while alone in a cell. While the grand jury report was presumably being finalized, another death occurred inside the jail this month. Yet, the grand jury concluded, “no significant issues were identified” with the jail’s intake, release and grievance process. The disconnect between facts and conclusion is likely because the grand jury only interviewed prison management and not inmates.

5. Potential end-run at Bonta for DA in 2022?

The cynical view would be to perceive this report as a partisan attack on opponents of local police. To use the grand jury’s own methodology, there is a clear and repeated pattern in this report for giving cover to police. The Urban Shield report favors Ahern and attempts to punish the Alameda County Board of Supervisors over a purely political issue. Santa Rita Jail’s problems get glossed over with an intensely narrow investigation into intake procedures. So, Ahern is covered, what about O’Malley? There is buzz in Alameda County that Assemblymember Rob Bonta’s next move after his 12-year term in the Assembly nears in 2024 that he’s interested in pursuing a career track that flows through the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. Maybe O’Malley retires before then? In that case, maybe she hands off the seat to a underling in order to block Bonta’s path? Maybe it’s Swalwell? In Alameda, where Bonta got its start, some progressives view this report as an attack on Oddie, Bonta’s long-time right-hand man (Vella is also close to Bonta). The charge is not new either. Last October, O’Malley chose to release her report on Alameda City Council interference just weeks before Oddie’s council election. To Oddie’s supporters, the “October Surprise” appeared to be O’Malley’s own version of James Comey undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign at the last minute.

 

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