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An oversized, gold-framed photo of Jessica Castaneda-Rodriguez decorated with pink flowers sat on an easel in the hearing room at Oakland City Hall, so members of the Citizens’ Police Review Board couldn’t miss it. Castaneda-Rodriguez and Salvador Nieves Jr. died a year ago when a vehicle fleeing from the police ran a red light at 90th and MacArthur Ave. and smashed into their car. Another passenger suffered serious injuries. Castaneda-Rodriguez was 25 years old when she died; she had lived in Oakland her whole life, loved the A’s and the Raiders, worked as a lab tech in Fremont, and was a few credits shy of an associate degree, said Chris Morray-Jones, legal services coordinator with Bay Area Police Watch. If Castaneda-Rodriguez and Nieves’ families thought a CPRB hearing last week would provide answers about their relatives’ death � like whether police followed policy when they engaged in a high-speed pursuit of a man who had apparently been stopped only for playing loud music � they were wrong. The commission threw them out of the room just before the proceeding began, save for Castaneda-Rodriguez’s mother, Leticia Rodriguez (who is the official complainant). But even Rodriguez is barred from sharing any details with her loved ones, and Nieves’ father was among the ejected family members, Morray-Jones said. Welcome to the current reality of police oversight in California, where cities like Oakland have overreacted to a state Supreme Court ruling by closing the entire process. And it turns out that in Oakland, not only are citizens forbidden from attending CPRB proceedings against police officers, they can’t even evaluate the city’s legal reasoning for closing those proceedings in the first place. What’s even more astonishing is that the CPRB members themselves aren’t privy to that analysis, either. The Supreme Court ruled in Copley Press v. The Superior Court of San Diego County, 39 Cal.4th 1272 ( .pdf), that proceedings brought by San Diego’s civil service commission against cops are not subject to open-records requirements because that commission has the authority to discipline officers. But during the 20-minute public portion of the CPRB meeting last week, Commissioner Jon Eisenberg, a well known appellate lawyer and occasional Recorder contributor, opined that he did not believe Copley mandated secrecy for Oakland’s oversight process, which is different from San Diego’s. Morray-Jones, representing complainant Rodriguez, quickly came to the podium and agreed. Eisenberg also said Oakland City Attorney John Russo had issued an opinion stating why Copley should apply. But when I asked Commission Chairwoman Corey Dishmon for a copy during the meeting, she said it was “unavailable.” Eisenberg then stated that the commissioners, too, had not been allowed to get a look at Russo’s reasoning. Reached after the hearing, Russo confirmed that he issued the opinion to the Oakland City Council, which he said is his client and thus enjoys privilege. The CPRB is a creature of the council, Russo argued, and so must abide by the council’s decision to follow his advice and close the hearings. Russo acknowledged the council discussed the matter only in closed session and took no public vote. So apparently the majority of the CPRB has reconciled itself to meeting behind closed doors without knowing exactly why it should. But given that these meetings have always been open � and that more than one lawyer has now publicly stated that Copley shouldn’t apply to the CPRB � it seems reasonable to expect that Russo explain to the voters why he thinks Copley should apply. “As people being paid by the taxpayers, they owe it to the public to provide an analysis as to why a process, that for years has been open to the public, should be closed,” said Thomas Burke, a media lawyer in Davis Wright Tremaine’s San Francisco office. Russo said the reason for closure is simple � the Copley ruling. “I don’t see any wiggle room in the Supreme Court’s decision, and my ethical obligation is to uphold the law,” the city attorney said, adding that three other lawyers in his office came to the same conclusion. Besides, providing any further details would weaken the city’s position should it ever decide to pursue litigation, he said, because it would lay out all the perceived strengths and weaknesses of its case to the police union. Russo has some credibility here. He is no lackey of the cops, having feuded publicly with union leadership � most notably over his decision to settle civil claims arising from the notorious “Riders” case. And he is engaged in a police reform process before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that grew out of that case. Rather than pushing an aggressive legal strategy in the Copley realm, Russo argues it would be better to focus all efforts on solving the problem in the Legislature, where a bill overturning Copley( .pdf) is awaiting a Senate floor vote. Russo sounds genuine when professing his support for a vigorous, and public, civilian oversight system. But that bill has a long way to go before it can even reach the governor, who in any case won’t exactly be waiting for it with open arms. In the meantime, citizens like Salvador Nieves Sr. must endure the humiliation of being barred from a hearing examining his own son’s death. A more aggressive litigation strategy is not mutually exclusive with pushing the Senate bill, and it would buy more time for parents like Nieves to obtain some of the answers they deserve.

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