OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — Oakland’s ex-police chief, LeRonne Armstrong, was exonerated by a hearing officer who reviewed circumstances surrounding his termination and sided with the former top cop.

The hearing officer, judge Maria Rivera, concluded that the city and Armstrong should meet to discuss ways to resolve the dispute, “including the possibility of reinstatement” as chief. Judge Rivera’s full 55-page report was obtained and reviewed by KRON4 on Tuesday morning.

Armstrong was fired without cause by Mayor Sheng Thao in February. The former top cop said he never violated any Oakland Police Department policies, deserves his job back, and proclaimed Rivera’s report as “vindication.”

Legal analyst Paula Canny told KRON4 that Rivera’s report shows Oakland city officials and Armstrong need to work things out. “It’s just a mess of a situation. What she is signaling to the parties is, you ought to settle this. Sit down, and talk it out, and figure out, what is the solution?”

LeRonne Armstrong said he followed the letter of the law, and deserves his job as police chief back. (KRON4 image)

Armstrong held a news conference with reporters on Monday and said, if he has no other choice, he will file a lawsuit against Oakland for wrongful termination. Armstrong said, “I was not guilty. Today is that vindication. I did not engage in policy violations. This concludes the fact that I did not do anything wrong.”

Mayor Thao said the judge’s report is non-binding, so she is not required to reinstate Armstrong as chief. “Mr. Armstrong had a right under state law to object to his termination and have a neutral hearing officer make non-binding recommendations to the City,” Thao told KRON4. “Oakland needs leaders, including at OPD, who will stand up and make tough decisions. Mr.  Armstrong failed to stand up for accountability at OPD.”

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao was only in office for one month before she fired the police chief.

In February, Thao said she lost confidence in Armstrong’s leadership ability after he defended himself publicly to reporters and downplayed the seriousness of an investigation by a Federal Monitor. Oakland and OPD have been subject to the oversight of a federal monitor for two decades because of the infamous “Riders Case.”

Federal Monitor Robert Warshaw’s investigation uncovered misconduct committed by OPD officers, including a hit-and-run crash with an OPD vehicle. The chief failed to discipline the officers and they faced no consequences, according to Warshaw’s investigation report released in January.

The mayor also accused the chief of calling one of his officers a “snitch” for complaining about potential misconduct, the judge’s report states. Thao placed then-chief Armstrong on a 30-day suspension in January.

While he was under suspension, and just days before he was fired, Armstrong told reporters, “This is not a scandal. This to me, clearly, is a last-ditch effort to destroy the credibility of me, destroy the credibility of this department, and to make the community believe that, again, OPD is involved in some shady business.”

Thao’s tone about Oakland’s ex-police chief did not change this week. The mayor said on Monday, “I was troubled by then-Chief Armstrong’s many statements indicating that he saw no need for deep reflection or change within the department. Mr. Armstrong immediately dismissed the allegations as ‘mistakes,’ and not systematic problems. That lack of leadership led me to lose confidence.”

Armstrong asserts that his comments in January and February were protected under the First Amendment and whistleblower laws.

LeRonne Armstrong speaks to reporters on Sept. 18, 2023 at his lawyer’s office.

Judge Rivera considered several key issues concerning the ex-police chief’s firing, including:

  • “Whether Chief Armstrong’s termination was in retaliation for any protected whistleblowing.”
  • “Whether Chief Armstrong’s termination was in retaliation for engaging in First Amendment protected speech.”
  • “Has the city presented facts and evidence showing that the chief committed the two alleged ‘sustained’ Manual of Rules (MOR) violations that are cited in the Monitor’s Report and which formed the basis of his 30-day suspension?”
  • “Should the Hearing Officer recommend that Chief Armstrong’s termination be reversed and he be reinstated immediately?”
  • “Were the mayor’s stated (publicly and otherwise) reasons for terminating chief Armstrong supported by facts and evidence?”

The judge’s report concluded the following:

  • “The hearing officer concludes that it is her duty to address whether the findings and conclusions reached in the Monitor’s Reports, as they pertain to chief Armstrong, and which were used as a basis for his suspension, are supported in the record.”
  • “The hearing officer recommends that the 30-day suspension imposed by the City Administrator be reversed, and removed from his record.”
  • “Whether the chief should be reinstated is not a matter within the purview of this appeal, as that decision depends not just on whether the chief was improperly removed, but also on the parties’ respective current positions on the issue, and a consideration of intervening events, as well as policy matters.”
  • “The hearing officer finds that the Report in File No. 22-0858 issued by the investigators contains inaccuracies in its characterization of chief Armstrong’s statements during his interview, making the credibility assessment unreliable.
  • “The hearing officer finds that the Report in File No. 22-0443 contains no basis for discipline of chief Armstrong.”

The judge recommended the following for Oakland’s next steps:

  • “The discipline imposed on Chief Armstrong should be reversed and removed from his personnel record.”
  • “The undersigned provides no recommendation as to whether the chief should be reinstated. That decision depends not just on whether the chief was improperly removed, but also on the parties’ current desires regarding the issue, and the consideration of intervening events, as well as policy matters.”
  • “The parties should meet and confer, together with their counsel, to discuss the viability of resolving this dispute in a manner to be negotiated, including the possibility of reinstatement. It would be wise for both parties, and of great benefit to the citizens of Oakland, to avoid the costs and related toll of protracted litigation.”

Once the ‘mess’ is settled, Armstrong could re-emerge as chief again

Oakland has been left without a permanent police chief ever since Armstrong was fired. Crime, meanwhile, has soared, according to the Oakland Police Commission. The commission is in charge of searching for a new chief and selecting final candidates. 

When the police commission gives Thao its list of candidates, she may not be happy with the list. Oakland Police Commission Chair Tyfahra Milele said Armstrong could be selected as one of the finalists.

Milele said, “Since the chief should not have fired to begin with, I am placing on the agenda for the next regular meeting of the commission consideration of whether the commission should recommend to the mayor that the chief be reinstated, or that he be included as one of the finalists in the list of candidates for her to consider for appointment as chief.”

Judge Rivera’s report details OPD Sgt. Chung’s alleged misconduct

The latest saga surrounding Oakland’s police chief controversy stems from multiple 2021 incidents when OPD Sgt. Michael Chung allegedly committed misconduct under Armstrong’s watch.

The judge’s report states, “In March of 2021, Sergeant Chung was driving an OPD vehicle in the garage of his (San Francisco) apartment building, when it collided with a parked car resulting in damage to the car. This incident came to the attention of OPD only after (an insurance) claim was filed, months later, by the owner of the vehicle that was struck. Sgt. Chung was instructed to report the incident to the San Francisco Police Department, which he did, and the matter was referred to the OPD Internal Affairs Division [IAD] for investigation in July. At some point after the investigation was opened, a video was provided by a person who worked at Sgt. Chung’s apartment, which showed that another person was in the passenger seat of the OPD vehicle, and
that the vehicle stopped for some seconds after the collision, and then drove on. It was
later learned that the passenger was a female OPD officer.”

Sgt. Chung was in a romantic relationship with the female OPD officer, investigators said.

The report continues, “Sgt. Lee was primarily in charge of the IAD investigation. Sgt. Lee concluded he could not determine whether Sgt. Chung was credible when he denied knowing his vehicle had struck another car. Sgt. Chung was not disciplined other than being required to take driver training.”

Sergeants who were in charge of investigating Sgt. Chung twisted facts about what happened, and presented a false case to the chief, according to Rivera’s report.

“The case as presented to the chief and his command staff by Sgt. Lee indicated that Sgt. Chung was found to be ‘credible’ when he denied that he was aware of the collision,” the report states.

The report also details a second incident in April of 2022 involving Sgt. Chung.

“Someone had discharged a weapon inside an elevator of an OPD building. Only after an investigation had begun, and news got around the Department that the matter was under investigation, did Sgt. Chung admit to being the person who had discharged the weapon. He also admitted to picking up the bullet casing/fragments and throwing them into the water as he was crossing the Bay Bridge. Upon learning about the matter, the Chief instructed that Sgt. Chung be placed on administrative leave,” Rivera’s report states.

The report continues, “There are no findings of any wrongdoing or dereliction of duty by the chief. The initial investigation became muddled after Sgt. Chung admitted to Lt. Turner — assigned to complete the preliminary investigation — that he was the one who had
discharged the firearm and implied that it had been a failed suicide attempt. Lt. Turner — whose prior partner had committed suicide — became extremely alarmed and, feeling that this was a matter of life and death, was not thoughtful about how he proceeded, nor did he reach out to any others to consult on how to proceed. None of the deficiencies described above were attributed to any affirmative fault, negligence, willful ignorance, or lack of leadership of the chief.”

The report notes, “When Sgt. Chung requested that his administrative leave be changed to medical leave, the chief denied the request on the basis that he believed the ‘stress’ allegedly being suffered by Sgt. Chung was of his own making — an indication that, contrary to the primary thrust of the (Federal Monitor) investigators’ reports, the chief was in fact holding Sgt. Chung accountable.”