This month marks the twentieth year of the longest-running police reform effort in the United States. The Oakland Police Department was placed under federal court oversight in 2003 following revelations that a squad of officers had spent the summer of 2000 running rampant in a predominantly Black part of the city, beating suspects, planting drugs, and fabricating police reports. Known as the “Riders,” these officers were widely feared in the community.
Keith Batt, then a youthful rookie officer, was shocked by the flagrant violations of the law he witnessed while on patrol with the Riders. He blew the whistle, informing OPD’s internal affairs, and setting in motion a historic pair of criminal trials and a sprawling civil rights lawsuit. After a thorough investigation by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, four of the Riders officers were indicted in Fall 2000 on dozens of charges, ranging from impersonating a police officer, filing false police reports, kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon. They were all terminated by OPD. One of them, Frank Vazquez, fled the country and remains a fugitive to this day, most likely in Mexico. Clarence Mabanag, Matthew Hornung, and Jude Siapno all stood trial, receiving hung verdicts in 2003 and a 2005 retrial and charges were eventually dismissed. Batt resigned from OPD and signed on as an officer in Pleasanton, a suburb 30 minutes south of Oakland where he still works.
The civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of 119 of the Riders victims resulted in a binding reform program mandating sweeping reforms to OPD’s internal affairs process and street policing. That consent decree, known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, is still in effect today. Modeled partly on the consent decree used to bring the Los Angeles Police Department to heel in the wake of its Rampart scandal, Oakland’s reform program has gone on to shape many police reform efforts nationwide.
It’s possible that this year that a federal judge will finally give Oakland control over its police department once again — but it’s also possible other scandals lurk beneath the surface that point to systemic problems of violence and accountability that must still be addressed.
This exclusive excerpt from the new book ‘The Riders Come Out at Night’ by Ali Winston and Darwin, recounts the beginning of the reckoning of policing in Oakland, back in the summer of 2000 when Keith Batt went on his first patrol with the Riders.
Nobody really knows how Ghost Town got its name, but the moniker fits. Walled off from most of Oakland by freeways on its northern and eastern borders and warehouses to the west, Ghost Town—known formally as the Hoover-Foster neighborhood — has been haunted since the mid-twentieth century by the combined forces of racism, deindustrialization, and chronic unemployment. It was always a working-class community, but for most of its existence, Ghost Town residents could find decent-paying jobs on the East Bay’s burgeoning industrial waterfront. That changed starting in the 1950s as factories closed, and Oakland’s economy descended into a multi- decade decline.
White residents left the neighborhood, and much of the rest of Oakland, for the prosperity of expanding suburbs. At one point, a high proportion of houses and storefronts in Ghost Town were vacant and boarded up. Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party (BPP), referred to West Oakland in his autobiography as a “ghost town but with actual inhabitants.” Newton’s sour comment stuck in the minds of locals, who started using the epithet themselves. If there was any doubt about whether the area should be called a ghost town, it was settled by the 1980s.
The federal “War on Drugs,” launched the previous decade by President Richard Nixon, transformed Ghost Town into a battlefield between rival dealers, and between dealers and cops. For the Oakland police, Ghost Town was hostile territory — a place to drive through cautiously while on patrol, meandering back and forth between West Street and San Pablo Avenue on long, numbered streets crowded with parked, semi-operable cars. In the 1990s Ghost Town truly felt abandoned. Darkness enveloped entire blocks of dilapidated bungalows, run-down apartment buildings, and weathered Victorians illuminated only by the neon glow of corner liquor stores. The sounds of gunfire and sirens were common. Murders were frequent. By this point, the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s were spent, no longer a counterforce offering hope and some measure of order to the mostly Black residents of Oakland’s flatlands. The social decay of racism and poverty could not be held at bay.
This was where Keith Batt found himself after having graduated from Oakland’s 146th police academy on June 2, 2000. Just twenty-three years old, Batt hailed from the small, liberal, mostly white Northern California city of Sebastopol — about as far away from the mean realities of West Oakland as could be. But he’d wanted to be a cop in a place unlike his hometown. He’d heard good things about the Oakland Police Department. It was a professional, hardworking agency in a challenging environment. It was also the first police department that offered him a position.
Boyish, clean-cut, and straitlaced, Batt majored in criminal justice at Sacramento State University. He was a top student in OPD’s academy and earned a reputation as one of the few trainees who would raise his hand to answer questions and volunteer for exercises. He was smart, confident, and energetic.
Batt got into policing for idealistic reasons and felt he could make a difference in a place like Ghost Town. What was obvious to him and other rookies was the scourge of gun violence, fueled by Oakland’s drug trade. The solution, accepted by most of society at the time, was to throw police at these complex social problems. Arrest the bad guys, lock up the dealers, and make the streets safe for the average person. Batt believed in this mission, and he felt certain that it could be accomplished with integrity and compassion for the community.
The recently appointed chief of police, Richard Word, had told the eager rookie that he was among the best of the best. For this reason, he and other fresh-faced cops equipped with the latest training from OPD experts would work shifts under the tutelage of veteran officers in one of America’s urban archetypes of segregation, poverty, and violence.
Batt’s field training officer, Clarence Mabanag, was an entirely different breed. “Chuck,” as he was known to other officers, sported a military-style buzz cut. Short, wiry, tough-talking, he had a reputation for arresting drug dealers by the dozens, often after foot chases that ended in scuffles. Although he was just a patrol officer, Mabanag was admired widely by other street cops and looked up to as a leader. How- ever, many also felt intimidated by him. In the locker room, Chuck led boisterous, foulmouthed shit-talking sessions that created an atmosphere similar to a high school football team’s inner sanctum. Police generally cultivate a sense of fraternity through ritual, language, and intense shared experiences. Mabanag, and OPD officers like him, created an in-group within this in-group. Their crew projected an overabundance of masculine confidence, and a sense among a few acolytes that they belonged to something special.
By any standards, Mabanag was also a problem officer, with the paper trail to prove it. Since he joined the department in 1988, dozens of citizens had filed complaints against Mabanag, including nineteen allegations of excessive force, several complaints over false arrests and false reports, and a 1998 accusation that he used a racial slur. Those arrested by the live-wire patrolman called him quick-tempered, violent, and insensitive. Whereas most officers catch less than a handful of misconduct complaints in their entire careers, Mabanag collected them like baseball cards.
One man, Antonio Wagner, filed a complaint with the city’s Citizens’ Police Review Board (CPRB) claiming that Mabanag punched him in the mouth and handcuffed him during an arrest. Then Chuck lifted Wagner off the ground and dangled him like a yo-yo by the cuffs. Mabanag had also been sued three times in federal court over accusations of brutality. He was also a killer. In 1992 he fatally shot a twenty-six-year-old man who allegedly pointed a gun at other officers (the shooting was ruled in policy by OPD). By 1999, so many people had filed complaints and sued the OPD over Mabanag’s misconduct that his superiors removed him from the field training program after six years.
But in September 1999 Chief Word reinstated Mabanag to the FTO program aft he’d participated in the department’s early intervention program, a series of training courses intended to straighten out the behavior of “high-risk” officers.
Word wasn’t particularly distinguished as an officer. In fact, virtually no one outside the agency had heard of him when Mayor Jerry Brown appointed him to lead the OPD in 1999. Even so, the new chief —at thirty- seven, the youngest in department history — was liked by many old-timers. He had his own reputation as a leathery cop’s cop, and, like Mabanag, Word had worked in the Special Duty Unit (SDU), an anti-narcotics program that, at the time, formed the core of the Oakland Police Department. SDU was one of the force’s hardest-charging units during the chaotic 1980s and 1990s. Its members were known for busting down the doors of cocaine and heroin dealers, and SDU squads racked up thousands of felony arrests over the span of a few decades. At one point in the 1990s, these specialized units overwhelmed the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office with so many felony drug and weapons possession cases that it simply couldn’t charge them all. Word’s rise to chief signaled a return to a more aggressive brand of policing, one that had waned slightly in the late 1990s under the previous chief, Joseph Samuels, and the previous mayor, Elihu Harris. And Mabanag’s reappointment to the FTO program further cemented this shift in attitude.
In a speech before Batt’s graduating class, Word described Mabanag and his peer group of FTOs as the “cream of the crop.” What the chief meant was that Batt was privileged to have the opportunity to train with one of the OPD’s elite patrol officers. Mabanag and his crew epitomized the department’s style of law enforcement and would turn soft rookies into hardened, streetwise officers capable of surviving “Croakland,”2 as some police referred to it cynically. During the academy, a few senior OPD officers working as trainers gave Batt a sense of what kind of trainer Mabanag was. One officer told him not to worry if Mabanag teased him ruthlessly and cruelly. “If he’s making fun of you, it means he likes you,” the cop explained. “If he doesn’t talk to you, that means he doesn’t like you.” In the locker room one day, several of the other trainees told Batt that Mabanag had asked about him, remarking disdainfully that “he better not be some kind of pussy.”
Mabanag and many other senior officers weren’t just physically aggressive. They were openly contemptuous of the idea of constitutional rights for suspects. As soon as they started patrolling together, usually with Mabanag driving and Batt seated shotgun, Mabanag told the rookie to forget what he’d been taught in the academy. Real police work was different. Real police work wasn’t pretty. It was physical, ugly, and dangerous.
True to his reputation, Mabanag bullied Batt incessantly. It began the day they met, with Mabanag dismissively calling his charge “Ike”—short for “I know everything.” It was his way of shutting down the rookie’s concerns about following department policy and abiding by the letter of the law. Mabanag wanted Batt to know that only a few methods worked on Oakland’s streets. He wanted to humble the newcomer, who had performed well in the police academy but was genuinely naïve about Oakland’s dangers. Batt, Mabanag also said, needed to show that he was a “soldier.”
This wasn’t just Mabanag’s view but a message that field training officers throughout the department were getting from the top. New cops needed to be seasoned properly. Criminals in West Oakland were heavily armed and contemptuous of law enforcement. Cops had to be even more dangerous than the bad guys. Another message was that it was time to take back West Oakland from drug dealers. Some local residents who led several of the city’s politically influential neighborhood crime prevention councils— effectively pro-police lobbies that also campaigned for their favored politicians — were calling for more hard-nosed tactics.
To impart this lesson about how he felt Oakland should be policed, Mabanag turned field training into a showcase of OPD methods. On their first night out that summer, Mabanag promised Batt he’d get him into a street fight. Batt initially thought his FTO was joking but soon found out that Mabanag was dead serious.
All police academy graduates are permitted to take a well-deserved short vacation before their first official day in uniform. On June 18, a rested Batt showed up at the Police Administration Building ready to work his first “dogwatch” shift — the inherently dangerous hours from dusk to dawn. He was riding with Mabanag in a well-worn Ford Crown Victoria, the OPD’s standard patrol car. A call came over the radio for a 10851: California police code for a stolen vehicle.
When they arrived at the Adeline Street address given to them, they were greeted by two men. The owner of the stolen car stood in his front yard, clutching his vehicle’s paperwork and ready to give the officers a re- port. The man’s cousin, Kenneth Soriano, was there, too, with his pet Rottweiler tied up behind a waist-high chain-link fence. The dog was barking at the officers.
Mabanag began by asking about the missing car, but then switched his line of questioning to the Rottweiler. “Is that dog tied up?” Before either man could answer, he provided his reason for asking: “I don’t want to have to shoot your dog if he bites me. I’ve done it before.”
Soriano, confused and wanting to discuss his cousin’s missing car, took offense and told Mabanag in a slightly slurred voice, because he was drunk, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. If you did that, I’d do you, too.”
De-escalation was not in Mabanag’s vocabulary. He responded by telling the twenty-year-old that he was under arrest for public intoxication, even though he was standing on his family’s property. Soriano refused Mabanag’s questionable orders, so the officer began wrestling with him. By this time, a small group of neighbors had gathered; they seemed stunned at how what was supposed to be a routine stolen car report had erupted into a physical confrontation. Batt, too, was surprised by the speed at which Mabanag moved to arrest Soriano, but he knew he had to protect his partner, so he tried holding back the onlookers from approaching. Mabanag, meanwhile, was still grappling with Soriano and barking, “Forty-eight!” into his shoulder radio — the code for requesting backup.
The owner of the stolen car pleaded with Mabanag to stop, but this was the fight the seasoned FTO had promised his rookie, and he wasn’t about to back down. Taking cues from his supervisor, Batt attempted to help Mabanag restrain Soriano. Not that the young man was fighting back. Instead, he tried to avoid being arrested by going stiff and holding on to the fence. Mabanag wrapped his arm around Soriano’s neck and attempted a carotid hold to cut off the flow of blood to his brain, but the hold slipped, choking off Soriano’s breath. He released his grip on the fence and sputtered, “I give up, I give up.” Mabanag responded by throwing Soriano to the ground face-first. The young man’s head and chest slammed against the pavement. Swiftly, two other officers appeared. Francisco “Frank” Vazquez and Jude Siapno ran up from their patrol car and immediately began punching and kicking Soriano as Batt attempted to cuff him. After pummeling him, the officers stuffed him into the back seat of a patrol car.
Mabanag, dusting himself off, ordered Batt to write the arrest report and to be sure to add that Soriano elbowed him, even though the detained man hadn’t thrown a blow at any of the four officers. Nevertheless, the trainee complied and scribbled the report. In a separate arrest report that Mabanag later wrote himself, he withheld the fact that he, Siapno, and Vazquez forcefully subdued Soriano. Mabanag showed this passage to Batt, explaining that the omission would help them avoid scrutiny from supervisors and the Internal Affairs Division. This was how you did the job and avoided the paper pushers and rats in the PAB: Oakland’s Police Administration Building.
Mabanag and Batt then drafted a statement for Soriano to sign. The two officers then drove Soriano to the Oakland City Jail on Seventh Street next to the Police Administration Building for booking. Not long after, Mabanag pulled over, parked the car, and took out his clipboard with Soriano’s signed statement. He looked over at Batt and said, “Hey, kid, let me show you a trick.” At this point, Soriano’s partially filled-out statement said only that he had resisted arrest. On several blank lines at the bottom, just above the man’s signature, signed under duress, Mabanag wrote in Soriano’s voice the following: “I’m sorry for giving the police a hard time. The officers were not the ones who beat me. I guess I was just mad cause somebody threatened my family earlier, and my temper got the best of me. That’s why I took it out on the police. This is a true statement.”
It was utter fiction, but Batt understood immediately that this was his FTO’s way of concealing the brutal beatdown and humiliating Soriano by forcing him to sign a false confession exonerating the officers. The large cut and bruise on Soriano’s forehead, caused when Mabanag threw him to the sidewalk, and any other injuries he might have sustained from both the chokehold and Vazquez’s and Siapno’s punching him, were explained away as being due to a fight earlier in the evening with someone else.
This was Batt’s very first taste of the real OPD, and it didn’t sit well with him. Although Soriano was never charged with a crime, seeing him prosecuted was never the point. The punishment the OPD officers wanted to exact was meted out on the street in the form of a demeaning assault. It was a stark warning to Soriano, his family, and the entire neighborhood that someone like him — a Black man offended by a threatening remark — should never challenge an Oakland police officer.
A few nights later, Mabanag decided that he and Batt would accompany a group of officers to serve a search warrant on a Chestnut Street house where a drug dealer had reportedly set up shop. Frank Vazquez wrote the warrant and led the raid. He pounded on a metal security door. Then, without giving anyone inside a chance to open up, officers used “the hook,” a large pry bar–like tool, to force it open.
A woman inside the house, Janice Stevenson, began screaming, asking the police what was happening. The hook failed to rip the door off, and she opened it. The officers poured inside. Vazquez promptly drew his gun and pressed it against Stevenson’s head.
“Bitch, we got you now,” one of the cops gloated.
The officers tore through the house and threw the occupants’ belongings on the floor. Batt was stationed out front in case anyone inside the house tried to escape. Beside him was Jerry Hayter, a grizzled sergeant who was in charge of overseeing the dogwatch squad. Not much time had passed when a single gunshot from behind the house pierced the air. Batt was alarmed. Even Hayter raised his eyebrows at the noise, but moments later, Officer Jude Siapno’s voice came over the radio stating that the “K3,” police code for shots fired, was a dog he had just killed.
Siapno and Mabanag had found the woman’s dog tied up to a post in the basement. It wasn’t threatening anyone. However, Siapno wrote in his report that the animal was untethered and lunged at him, and that he fired a single hollow point bullet into its brain in self-defense.
Batt’s discomfort with the senseless killing of the dog was evident to others at the scene. But Mabanag bragged to Batt that he’d shot six dogs before. The remarks were a none-too-subtle way of telling the trainee that he should get used to putting down dogs. All through the 1990s, OPD officers frequently killed dogs in what can be described only as sport. Occasionally, they were justified in killing an unleashed and menacing pit bull. But many times, the animals were leashed. Cops were often accused of cutting the leashes afterward to cover up the needless loss of life. The animal killings served another purpose: as punishment for people the officers suspected of operating drug houses or hiding fugitives.
Batt and another rookie, Steve Hewison, were made to dispose of the dog’s carcass later that night. The officers, having discovered crack cocaine and a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle in the basement, arrested Stevenson. Frank Vazquez stole some of the crack, which he used later to pay an addict for information about another drug supplier—this, according to a conversation that Keith Batt witnessed. The drugs were used to make yet another con- trolled drug purchase that served as the basis for another search warrant.
At a lineup the next evening, before they started their shift, Sergeant Hayter joked in front of the assembled group of officers, including Siapno, Vazquez, Batt, and Mabanag, that there were “two versions of the story” regarding the killing of the dog. One version, he chuckled, was that the dog was just “licking Jude’s hand” when Siapno put a bullet between its eyes. The other was that the dog had growled and lunged at him.
Batt’s first week on the force continued like this, filled with vulgar displays of power, impunity, and dishonesty by his training officer and half the other cops they worked with. He followed Mabanag around West Oakland, sometimes just the two of them, but often with others, chasing down narcotics suspects in chaotic pursuits that frequently ended in beatings. In the small hours of the morning before the sun came up, Batt and the rest would change out of their uniforms and drive home to sleep away the first half of each day. However, the newbie cop was losing sleep over the transgressions he witnessed. It wasn’t just that officers were brutalizing people and filing false reports; some of them appeared to take pleasure in these crimes.
On the night of June 26, Mabanag and Batt were driving along Thirty- Fourth Street in West Oakland when they spotted a man who seemed to be acting strangely. In Ghost Town, the mere fact that he was walking down the street at ten thirty was enough to raise suspicion. During the height of the OPD’s version of the stop-and-frisk policy, simply being Black was cause enough for officers to detain a person and search for weapons and drugs. Mabanag pulled up alongside the pedestrian and hit the brakes.
“Grab that guy,” he ordered his trainee.
Batt rushed from the car and cuffed the man, who was already protesting that he’d done nothing wrong. They placed him in the back seat, then searched the area for drugs. Mabanag explained that panicked suspects usually tossed their contraband into weeds or over fences. After briefly scanning the ground and bushes, he came up with two small rocks he claimed were crack cocaine. The patrolman took out his notebook and began scribbling a report as Batt looked on. Then Mabanag handed the rookie his notes and told him, “Copy it.”
It was a strange command, but Batt dutifully began copying the report word for word in his own handwriting. However, when he got to the part that said that he had witnessed the man throw contraband on the ground, Batt paused.
“I didn’t see that,” he said.
To write it would be a lie. Cops are supposed to tell the truth, even if it means not having the complete, ironclad evidence needed to charge some- one for a suspected crime.
Mabanag ignored the rookie’s complaint and explained that in order to send the man to prison, they needed to link him directly to the narcotics. The best way to do that was for Batt to write that he’d seen the man drop the crack cocaine that Mabanag recovered almost immediately. If his decade on Oakland’s streets had taught the veteran anything about the law, it was that prosecutors needed particular kinds of evidence and statements in order to secure a guilty plea or conviction, and Mabanag was eager to provide these gifts.
But Mabanag’s dishonesty bothered Batt in a deeper way. It wasn’t even clear to Batt whether his superior had actually discovered the narcotics on the ground that night. He could have planted the evidence there. Mabanag and many other officers would later be accused of having planted drugs on numerous suspects over the years and also paying informants with drugs they’d confiscated from others. Batt hadn’t been on the job for even a week, but his mind swirled with suspicion.
Mabanag certainly wasn’t the only FTO who had trainees copy falsified police reports. Frank Vazquez had also recently ordered Hewison, another graduate of the 146th police academy, to copy an arrest report stating that he’d observed a suspect toss a bag filled with forty-eight crack rocks between two houses just before he was captured. Hewison had seen no such thing, but, fearing a bad write-up, which could put a quick end to his police career, he agreed to falsify his report.
Much of what the Oakland PD did in Ghost Town and other predominantly Black and Latino areas of the city in the late 1990s and early 2000s involved this kind of policing. Between responding to calls such as car thefts and domestic violence, cops would jump out on anyone who might be buy- ing or selling weed, cocaine, and heroin or other narcotics. Anyone they recognized as being on probation or parole was also an immediate target for a stop-and-frisk.
West Oakland cops such as Mabanag, Siapno, Vazquez, Hayter, and many others had become so zealous in their mission that, by the late 1990s, they’d earned a nickname: the Riders. It came from a favorite story that was told and retold in OPD locker rooms and went something like this: A Black man was driving through West Oakland one day when a policeman stopped him and cited him for a traffic violation. Pleasantly surprised by the officer’s courteous and businesslike demeanor—no insults, no brutality, no requests to search the car, just a simple ticket — the driver thanked him for being “nice.”
This puzzled the officer. “Why are you thanking me for being nice?” he asked.
“Because you all aren’t always so nice,” the man explained. “Like at night. This isn’t at all what it’s like at night. At night, the Riders come out.”
From the forthcoming book THE RIDERS COME OUT AT NIGHT by Ali Winston & Darwin BondGraham. Copyright © 2023 by Antonio Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham. Published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.