More than a decade ago, the Oakland Police Department was placed under federal oversight when a group of rogue officers was accused of planting evidence on and beating up predominantly black residents.
After years of reform work, the department was close to shedding that close scrutiny last summer when, in a span of nine days, Oakland cycled through three police chiefs amid revelations that dozens of officers were entangled in a sex scandal involving a teenage girl.
Mayor Libby Schaaf likened the department to a “frat house” with a “toxic, macho culture.”
For seven months, she has been searching for someone to fix that.
On Wednesday, during a news conference at Oakland City Hall, Schaaf announced her selection: Anne Kirkpatrick, a tough and seasoned reformer with 34 years of experience who will become the city’s first female police chief.
Kirkpatrick, a Memphis native, joins a uniquely female cast of Oakland city leaders — including the mayor, fire chief and city administrator. And, because of the historic nature of her appointment, it didn’t take long for reporters at the news conference to narrow in on her gender and its implications.
“Is this the end of the frat house?” one reporter asked.
“I’m sorry,” Kirkpatrick asked, tongue in cheek, “you want to ask that of me again?”
The reporter then offered a brief explainer of the mayor’s previous characterization.
“Well I appreciate you thinking that I didn’t know,” Kirkpatrick said, pausing to smile as the room laughed, “but the whole country knows.”
Then she addressed the question that looms over many female leaders, especially those who are historic firsts.
What is it like to be a female police chief?
“I am a woman, I know nothing else but being a woman,” Kirkpatrick said. “So when people ask me what it’s like to be a woman, I don’t know any other way. What I will tell you is that I am a leader.”
Kirkpatrick told the room that as she read the surveys and suggestions from community members outlining what they wanted in a police chief, the qualities — integrity, fairness, visionary, decision-maker, accountability — shared a common thread.
“Y’all, those are character traits, and those character traits are not gender-based. Those are leadership-based,” she said. “So I am a leader who is cloaked as a woman, and I am grateful for being a woman, but I will be your leader as well.”
Mayor Schaaf clarified to reporters that the search was not dependent upon gender, even though the most recent challenges facing the department stem primarily from male officers accused of sexual misconduct, and that they sought someone “who would deliver leadership, someone who would hold the department accountable for a level and standard of conduct that I know both men and women want for this department.”
Kirkpatrick’s résumé, the mayor said, proves she is capable of accomplishing that.
It charts a decades-long law enforcement career that began in Kirkpatrick’s home town of Memphis, where her parents and family still live, she said at the news conference. She worked there as a police officer in the mid-1980s before taking a leave of absence to attend Seattle University Law School.
While pursuing her degree, Kirkpatrick began a law enforcement career there that spanned nearly three decades. She worked as a police officer for eight years in Redmond, a suburb of Seattle, then taught criminal justice at a community college for a year. Kirkpatrick served as police chief for three departments in Washington — Ellensburg, Federal Way and Spokane — spending five years in each post before retiring in 2012.
She spent 2012 as a leadership instructor for the FBI, leaving for a two years to serve as King County deputy sheriff, before returning as an FBI instructor.
Most recently, Kirkpatrick applied to be the chief of police in Chicago, a department in as desperate need of reform as Oakland’s. She was selected as one of three finalists for the job, but was ultimately passed over by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who selected Superintendent Eddie Johnson, a well-liked and veteran African American cop who didn’t apply for the job, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Emanuel’s decision came after intense pressure from black and Latino aldermen to hire a familiar face, despite expert opinion that in situations requiring major reform, an outsider is more effective. In a surprise move, Johnson later asked Kirkpatrick in June to guide reforms within the department ahead of the results of a federal investigation of the embattled agency, the Tribune reported.
She had been there just six months, and news of her departure came as a shock to the Chicago community, the Tribune reported.
Lori Lightfoot, head of the Chicago Police Board, told the Tribune that Kirkpatrick’s departure was a loss for their department and applauded the woman for having the “integrity” to step into the reformer role even after she didn’t get the top job she originally wanted.
“I think she is clear-eyed and extremely hard-working and dedicated,” Lightfoot told the Tribune. “What this means is someone else is going to have to step up. The work still needs to get done.”
The parallels were not lost on reporters at the news conference Wednesday, who asked Kirkpatrick about the reform efforts in Chicago and how they will affect her work in Oakland.
“Reform is where we have policies and procedures and we direct behavior,” she said. “I am more interested in transformation. It’s transformation I have a real heart for. Reform is part of transformation.”
Kirkpatrick said she wasn’t looking to leave Chicago, but the opportunity to lead in California was hard to pass up, especially because she has “had a heart for Oakland for many years.”
She said she doesn’t consider Oakland a “mess,” but an “opportunity.”
“The past is behind us now,” she said. “We learn from that and we’re moving forward.”
The “past” in Oakland is messy.
Although progress had been made on the issues that initiated the original federal oversight more than a decade ago, a second investigation following the sex scandal revealed the exchange of racist texts and emails between officers. By that point, three police chiefs had been fired or resigned within just two weeks.
That turnover, caused by the sex scandal and racist messages, informed Mayor Schaaf’s refusal to appoint another interim police chief during the city’s search for a new leader. Instead, Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth was assigned to the department, responsible for administrative and personnel decisions until now.
Kirkpatrick’s hiring, though a welcome change of pace after nearly a year of department turmoil, still has many community members skeptical.
Mya Whitaker, a black community organizer who helped research police chief candidates, told reporters at the news conference that she had made the new chief aware that she is entering a “no-trust zone” and that she needs to break down barriers. If she fails, Whitaker said, she and the young people with whom she works will “hold her accountable.”
Kirkpatrick said that her plans for reform include accountability, not just for officers in the department, but for herself. When asked how long she plans to stick around, Kirkpatrick said she wants to “make it such that you don’t want me leaving.”
“It is my desire to invest,” she said. “To be all in in Oakland.”
More from Morning Mix