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Oakland deal would avoid court takeover of police force

By Peter Henderson and Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oakland on Wednesday sought to avert a rare federal court takeover of its police department, striking a proposed deal in a civil rights suit to give a new official sweeping power to force change but leaving day-to-day operations in city hands.

The northern California city, with a history of civil unrest and police violence, in 2003 settled a civil rights case in which police allegedly planted evidence and beat suspects.

But nearly a decade later, the city has failed to complete work on a list of promised reforms. Images of Oakland police in riot gear using tear gas to subdue members of the Occupy protest movement a year ago raised a global outcry.

Federal District Judge Thelton Henderson has been considering taking the police force into receivership, a first in recent U.S. memory. The deal between the city and plaintiffs, disclosed in a Wednesday court filing, would preclude that step.

The proposed order, which Henderson must approve, calls for the court appointment of a city "Compliance Director" who would report to Henderson and could order actions up to and including removing the police chief.

But the city would still run the police force and could appeal decisions to the federal judge.

Rockne Lucia Jr., an attorney representing the Oakland Police union, called the tentative deal a cross between the current system and federal receivership.

John Burris, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the move "receivership-light" with no significant differences from a formal court-appointed receiver. City officials in a statement said the deal showed their commitment to reforms.

The proposed order also calls for a hearing on about June 1, 2013, for the court to review the police department's progress and possibly take new actions.

Under the 2003 settlement of what was known as the Riders case, the city agreed to reforms, including changes in the way officers are investigated and disciplined, along with measures designed to stop racial profiling.

Henderson told Reuters this year that reforms had stalled, and he cited a report that showed an unusually high number of internal affairs investigations were being closed as "unfounded," which clears an officer's record.

That issue is listed among the goals of the Compliance Director in the proposed agreement. The case is Allen vs. City of Oakland, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Case No. 00-4599.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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