The Backstory: Akintunde Ahmad

Reporting on a buried history

In this episode of The Backstory, we’re speaking to Ida B. Wells fellow Akintunde Ahmad about his article, “What Happened When Oakland Tried To Make Police Pay for Misconduct,” produced in partnership with The Appeal. In his investigation, Akintunde looks back at a program from two decades ago that required the Oakland Police Department to pay some of its own legal costs and how the city failed to enact the change it promised.

In this conversation, we discuss how he developed some of the sources for his story, the challenges he faced reporting on events from decades ago, and what activists can learn from this failed attempt at police reform.

Paco Alvarez: So my first question is what initially drew you to the story?

Akintunde Ahmad: So being born and raised in Oakland, I was really a kid when the Oakland Riders case happened and the following negotiated settlement agreement was originally signed. I’m born in 1996, the Riders case settled and negotiated settlement agreement started in 2003. And so when I started to just get more interested in reporting on policing and obviously looking to my hometown as a case study for that, I was like, Oh wow, we’re actually in year 19 of this federal oversight program being in existence. And obviously I wasn’t a seven year old doing a deep dive into police reform and federally mandated oversight. And so it was interesting to just kind of look back into history and see what was actually going on in my city at the time of my birth and everything. And so, yeah, just like a personal connection to the city. And that’s what like was the kickoff point of police reform in Oakland.

Alvarez: And since your story is so kind of like historical – how did you go about uncovering the history of Oakland’s attempts to reform policing?

Ahmad: Yeah, so originally I just leaned into some connections that I had to people in the community. And so started off with John Burris, who is a longtime civil rights attorney who also represented the victims in the Oakland Riders case that kind of sparked all of this. And so he was just always around community. He’s one of those people where I don’t know where I originally met him. I don’t know how long I’ve known him for. I’ve just kind of always known him. And so, yeah, reached out to him and told him that I was reporting on this case and using that as a branch off point. And so he just had a wealth of knowledge, obviously, because he has over three decades of experience being a civil rights attorney and representing victims of police misconduct in the city, but also he just knows everybody. So whether it be police officers or victims in cases he’s represented, or federal judges. It wasn’t just as simple as like, talk to me and I’ll tell you everything, it was also like, you need to talk to this person. You need to talk to this person.

And yeah, and then there were other people. There’s people like Regina Jackson, who runs these youth development centers, who serves as the head of the Citizen’s Police Commission in Oakland. So she had a bunch of resources. And then coincidentally, I actually knew the current police chief through my days in like sports with Oakland PAL, the Police Athletic League, and he’s like the one police officer that I even knew. And when we first started talking about this, he was not police chief. And so he became even more of a valuable asset to this story once he became chief obviously, because now I just have a direct connection to somebody who I can reach out to and email and get comment and get feedback on things.

So, yeah, all of this kind of led me to the path of actually being introduced to Rashidah Grinage, who’s a longtime community activist who actually in an interview that we were having, in an offhand comment, mentioned this risk management incentive program. So we were talking about just her longstanding history in the city after her, her son and husband were shot and killed by Oakland police in the 90s. And we were talking about different ways of reforming the department and accountability measures that can be put into place. And yeah, she just off-hand mentioned the risk management center program that was around from the late 90s to early 2000s. And I was like, wait, what is that? And that’s what gave rise to that. I did not go into that conversation knowing this program existed or asking questions about it. We were just talking about our work as an activist in the city in general. And so it was probably like our third or fourth conversation, actually, that I’d had with her when she mentioned this. And that’s what actually gave rise to this story that we’re publishing now.

Alvarez: What were some of the challenges you faced while reporting? Was it difficult to report on events that took place primarily like over 20 years ago?

Ahmad: It was definitely difficult reporting on something that took place over 20 years ago. I mean, for one, just getting access to records and things at that time is difficult. I have to kind of do a deep dive. And so after getting records, then it’s like, OK, I see the different names of council members or risk managers in the city at the time, and a lot of them are not still working with the city because a lot of these documents are signed from 1999 or 2000. So it’s been, you said, over two decades since that happened. So then it’s just kind of following paper trail connections and trying to talk to people and get people on the phone. But due to the history of Oakland and policing in Oakland, and especially in that time when you have like the Oakland Riders case and a negotiated settlement agreement happening just after this, which obviously took up a lot of people’s attention and focus – when you ask them about this program, a lot of folks don’t really recall it, right? They’re like, Oh, I kind of do remember this program or can you refresh my memory about it? And so, yeah, it was just a bit difficult to get people who were super knowledgeable about this.

And obviously, Rashidah was one of the people who was influential in creating and crafting the program and bringing it to City Council and getting it implemented. But I think part of the reason why a lot of people also may not have recalled it as such, and one of the reasons why I’m reporting on this, is because it had no teeth. The financial transfers had no record of actually being made. And so, yeah, the impact that it was supposed to have was not actually executed in the way it was initially planned. And so, yeah, because of all of these things, just like these compound effects – it happened so long ago, people don’t remember, they don’t remember because it was executed in the way that was supposed to be, and then there was just limited documents that were available. And I mean, we got quite a few to reference, and I think that’s what the strength of the story rests on. But yeah, it definitely was not easy.

Alvarez: Did you face any pushback trying to get documents and information from Oakland city officials?

Ahmad: I think I’m actually fortunate to be in a city like Oakland, because there are so many journalists who have really been bringing to the public and to people’s attention, the difficulties that they face when requesting documents about police. And so I actually didn’t face much pushback in getting the documents because I think there are just been – like SB 1421, a recent act in California, is around transparency around documents and things happening in a timely manner. And so, yeah, surprisingly, it was like a pretty straightforward request through the city’s portal, functions kind of like a FOIA, but they just have their own department of doing that. And it actually didn’t take too long for me to get these documents back. And I think they had those on hand or maybe somebody had referenced them before or something. But yeah, I think that was surprising. Some of the other things that I requested from my original story pitch, which was more focused on the Riders and officers, the histories of misconduct, that stuff, it’s been taking much longer and some of it is still in the process of getting back and every now and then, I can get a random email from the portal saying a new document has been released that may be relevant to your request. But yeah, I mean, I think I haven’t had to do too much reporting in other cities specifically, but it was more straightforward and happened in a more timely manner that I expected.

Alvarez: You sort of spoke about this a bit, but do you feel like coming from Oakland gave you any useful insights into the community that helped your reporting?

Ahmad: I definitely think being born and raised in Oakland and having a lot of connections with different community members played a really pivotal role in being able to make this story come to fruition and actually have some teeth, some sources, some people with firsthand experience across the board. Yeah, that definitely played a big role in that. I really just leaned into my community and I never had to cold email somebody. It was always got a reference from somebody else. Even if it was my initial point of contact, I could say, I got your number or I got your email from such and such. You know, I got your number from the Police Chief who’s been talking to me about this. And so I also think that in some cases just having – which is really, really rare – but currently like having a police chief who is actually willing to talk and have these conversations, it disarms other people who would be more willing to talk. So like if the police chief is talking about it, it can’t be that dire or like tiptoeing around a subject that may get the department in or whatever it may be. And so, yeah, I think that yet just leaning on community and having those connections is what allowed for this story to happen. And I met a lot of people along the way who, you know, for other stories I’m reporting now, I just have developed a whole new rolodex of sources, people don’t use rolodexes but I guess that term still matters.

Alvarez: Obviously, like the past few years have seen like a big uptick in states and cities attempting to reform the police. What do you hope organizers and activists seeking police reforms in other cities and states can learn from the history you reported on?

Ahmad: Yeah, I think the biggest thing that folks can learn from my story is a policy proposal, a city bill, whatever it may be, only has as much strength of the politicians who are willing to enforce it. So in this case, this whole program is fleshed out, is based on success in other cities. You know, it’s a pretty straightforward program.We’re going to use the past 10 years to average out your liability cost. Let’s say it was $2 million. We’re going to pre-allocate this amount to you at the start of your year. If you stay under that $2 million budget that you already have, then you’re just going to have excess discretionary funds to use however you want. And this is not just for the police department. This is also for fire departments, Parks and Recreation and Public works. But if you go over that pre-allocated amount, then you’re going to have to pay 25% of your overage from your own budget, or some other way. And so that’s why it’s an incentive and disincentive program.

And yeah, everything was fleshed out, but the politicians in the city just did not enforce it, even though everything was signed off and it had plans. And we have records, showing when things were signed, we have this other letter that says no transfers are ever being made, and that’s what the bulk of this reporting sits on, what actually happened there. And in talking to politicians in our city who were still working in City Council and former ones, they were saying this is not the only example of this happening. There have been other bills that have been passed and things that have been adopted, but just weren’t actually carried out and implemented. And so especially on a city level and in city government, there is nobody who is really making sure that things are happening in a timely manner and making sure things are pushing because there are so many things going on.

So, you can have whatever program that may be, but if folks are dragging their feet to roll it out or nobody is really checking that the finances are being transferred in the way that they were originally intended, or there are no journalists who are doing the checking on behalf of the public to make sure that these things happen, then how else can you enforce that?

Alvarez: And do you have any advice for reporters hoping to report on police reform efforts?

Ahmad: Definitely, I think my main advice to anybody reporting on police reform efforts would be to really lean in into the community of people who have a long lasting history of working in that space because there are a lot of folks who – and not to talk bad about anybody who’s new to the reform world – but there are a lot of people who may get a lot of attention and utilize social media very well to become the voice of reform movements and things, who may not actually be the best suited people to give the history and the background and understanding what works.

And so for me, it was really interesting to come across Rashidah Grinage because her son and husband were killed by the police in 1993. And so ever since then, for almost three decades now, she’s really been influential in this and she’s never been interested in politics. She’s never been interested in the spotlight. I mean, she’s also now like this older aged white woman who most folks would not think is the archetype of the type of person who would be so dedicated to police reform. But her track record speaks for itself. She’s been so influential in a lot of city bills and laws and legislation and public policy. Like I said spanning over three decades, and really been so focused on doing the work and getting the support for the work and has no interest in self-promotion, has no interest in making sure that it’s known that she’s the one doing it. And so trying to find those people in those communities who just have such a wealth of knowledge and have a track record to show. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know this worked. I know this didn’t work. I remember when we tried this and I remember why it didn’t work and why the funding didn’t happen. And so just kind of leaning on those folks.

And then knowing that everybody also still has a value to add, so just getting a wide, wide range of perspectives. I mean, for this story, I talked to everybody from the police chief to former police captains who are retired, who can speak more freely about things. I would say do not sleep on former police officers as a source because current police officers, regardless of how they feel, that blue wall of silence is real and a lot of cases, but it’s real because people want to collect their pensions. You may be 20 years into a career or 10 years away from making sure that you get your retirement and could risk being fired because you say something that may be contrary to what the department wants. But retired police officers have been some of my best sources because they’re not beholden to anybody anymore. And so, yeah, they say a lot of things and they’re transparent. They say I would have never said this while I was an officer. However, now I can speak freely about it. And so I think that’s another very valuable source in looking at police reform.

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