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Oakland City Councilmember Denies Chronicle Column Charges By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 05, 2005

An Oakland City Councilmember says that a San Francisco Chronicle column about a confrontation between her and an Oakland police officer is factually untrue in key points, and that she never looked in the officer’s personnel file or evaded a traffic citation. 

In addition, the police officer involved—nine-year police veteran Michael Nichelini—has a history of disciplinary charges before the Oakland Citizens Police Review Board for disrespectful activity towards citizens, and earlier this year was recommended for four days suspension by the CPRB for allegedly striking, choking and gassing a man during a “sideshow” traffic stop. 

In his July 29 column, Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson wrote that after Officer Michael Nichelini stopped Councilmember Desley Brooks while she was driving her car in late July near the intersection of 14th and Clay streets in Oakland, she refused to cooperate, citing her membership on the City Council. 

Johnson wrote that Brooks “ignored the officer’s order [to go around a crew that was filming in the area], asking him, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Nichelini said he had no clue, but told her whoever she was, she would have to move her car. Brooks then announced her VIP status.” 

Johnson said that Brooks then told Nichelini “that she’d seen his personnel file, a document to which she has no legitimate reason to possess, and told the officer that he was the reason his father wasn’t considered for the chief’s job.” 

Nichelini’s father, Vallejo chief of police and former Oakland Deputy Chief of Police Bob Nichelini, was under consideration to replace Oakland Police Chief Richard Word last year, but did not get the job. 

In his column, Johnson said he “noticed that the windshield on Brooks’ car was cracked and that she wasn’t wearing her safety belt,” he asked her for her driver’s license “but got nothing but lip. ... Then, she drove away.” 

The public information officer for the Oakland Police Department said that no citation had been issued to Brooks for the alleged incident. 

Toni Cook, a former Oakland School Board member and a Brooks supporter, called Johnson’s column “yellow journalism” and said, “I was surprised that he’d leave himself so open to charges of being vindictive” against the councilmember. 

She said that if Brooks actually did drive away from a legitimate traffic stop without giving the officer her license “why didn’t he chase after her, or issue a warrant for her arrest?” 

Brooks said that she had refused to answer Johnson’s telephone calls when he was writing the column “because of past problems with him,” but she told her side to the Daily Planet. 

“I was coming from a festival with my sister and my niece, and I saw the officer sitting on his motorcycle in the middle of the street,” Brooks said during an interview at an East Oakland free music concert sponsored by her office. 

“I drove up to him slow, because I wanted to find out what was going on. The way I was driving, it was clear that I had no intention of running over him. But he put up his hand and started shouting at me, ‘Hey! Hey! HEY!” and waving me back. I thought it was inappropriate, given the circumstances. So when I got up to him, I told him who I was and asked him ‘is that how you talk to all citizens?’ And he answered, ‘when they don’t follow my orders.’” 

Brooks said that she did not appreciate the way the officer was talking to her, and says that “we exchanged some words.” 

“I asked him to give me his name,” Brooks said, “and when he told me, I said ‘no wonder.’ He asked me what I meant by that, and I told him that I was glad his father didn’t get the job as police chief. That’s when he asked me for my driver’s license.” 

Brooks said that once she heard Nichelini’s name, “I remembered him from some conversations with Pueblo, and that he’d had some history of disrespect to Oakland citizens.” She said she has never looked in Nichelini’s personnel file (”they don’t allow councilmembers to see those,” she said), and did not tell him that she had. 

Pueblo is a community organizing group which has been active in Oakland police issues. 

Jen Nuber, a volunteer community organizer with Pueblo, said that “it would be ludicrous for her to go to the trouble of looking in Nichelini’s personnel file. It’s all in the public record.” 

An April 2 Oakland Tribune article reported the Citizen Police Review Board’s suspension recommendation against Nichelini, saying that “for the second time in less than a year, the board ... sustained allegations of excessive force” against the officer. 

The Tribune article said that during a sideshow abatement patrol, after Nichelini stopped a car driven by a teenager identified as Devin Coakley, “Nichelini struck the teenager with his flashlight, put him in a headlock and then sprayed him in the face with his canister of pepper spray-like gas, the seven-member board determined.” 

The article also said that last August “the board sustained two of 10 allegations brought against Nichelini for improper verbal conduct and excessive force in another case,” recommending that he be suspended for two days and reprimanded orally. In the earlier case, “Nichelini used profanity when ordering Maxemiliano Montes, 17, out of his truck ... according to the board’s finding. In addition, the board found that Nichelini used his knees to hit Montes’ head against the pavement.” 

Minutes of the Nichelini-Montes CPRB hearing show that Montes accused the officer of asking him “are you a nigga or ese?” and asking him “do I need to tell you in Spanish?” and telling him to take “those fucking Mexican flags” off his vehicle. Those allegations were not upheld by the CPRB. 

Minutes of the two CPBR hearings are public documents and available online, and Nuber said that the “Coakley incident at the sideshow was one of the subjects of a meeting [earlier this year] between [Pueblo activist] Rashida Grinage and Councilmember Brooks” regarding police enforcement at Oakland’s sideshows. Brooks has been active in looking for legal, sanctioned alternatives to the illegal sideshows. Grinage was out of the state this week and unavailable for comment. 

Nuber said that Nichelini has a reputation among Oakland’s youth of color “for being a straight-up racist pig. They call him by the nickname Mussolini.” 

In her interview, Brooks also denied leaving the scene of a traffic stop. 

“After he asked my for my drivers license, I asked to see his supervisor,” she said. “He asked me for my license again, and I asked to see his supervisor again. After that, he seemed to get disgusted, and waved me on and told me I could leave. That’s when I drove off.” 

In his July 29 Chronicle column, Johnson said he based his account on a letter describing the incident written by Nichelini to Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker and “sent to the Oakland Police Officers Association.” Johnson said that Tucker forwarded a copy of the letter to Oakland City Administrator Deborah Edgerly. 

Brooks said that she herself has not yet seen a copy of the letter, despite queries to Tucker and Edgerly. Edgerly was on vacation beginning this week, and Oakland Police Officers Association President Bob Valladon did not return Daily Planet telephone calls for comment on this story. An Oakland Police Department spokesperson said that the letter had not been released to the press by the chief of police.›