In Spokane, Wash., where Anne Kirkpatrick made her bones as a police chief after leading two smaller police forces in Washington State, some officers gave her a nickname: IBO, or “itty bitty officer,” for her petite stature.
Kirkpatrick inspired less endearing monikers among critics when she later led the police force in Oakland, California, a city not unlike New Orleans for what she walked into: a notorious history of police violence, corruption, scandal and lurching reform.
But supporters say Kirkpatrick inspired faith and loyalty among the rank and file, and when she left, officers lined the block to send her off.
“I’ve never seen that before with our chiefs leaving,” said Sekou Millington, who commanded police internal affairs under Kirkpatrick in Oakland before becoming police chief in nearby Tracy.
“We were all kind of taken aback when she first came to Oakland. Because, you know, she is small,” he said. “She isn’t shy. People grew to respect her as an outsider coming in. She really was able to reach the hearts of the membership.”
Millington described Kirkpatrick -- who holds degrees in business, law and counseling -- as spiritual and frank, unassuming and unafraid.
But the Memphis native clashed with a newly formed commission that became her boss in Oakland and sacked her after three years in February 2020.
More than three years later, Kirkpatrick, 64, awaits City Council confirmation as Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s choice to lead the New Orleans Police Department. She's due to start Friday as interim chief. A confirmation hearing is scheduled Oct. 11.
Kirkpatrick led the field of finalists in experience as police brass, boasting 21 years of command-level chops. Between Spokane and Oakland, she served as undersheriff in Seattle and briefly served as a bureau chief in Chicago.
Kirkpatrick, a licensed attorney, described a sedate personal life. Single, she said she enjoys running and fishing.
“Not an exciting lady,” she remarked in a brief round of media interviews last week.
Her experience makes Kirkpatrick realistic about the duration of a tenure in New Orleans that may be tied to the lame-duck status of her new boss, who's now halfway through her second term. Kirkpatrick appears to embrace a role as an itinerant city police chief.
“My goal is to create changes, get to the finish line for the consent decree, build up the leadership,” she said. She flagged crime reduction, the “big blister” of the NOPD’s staffing woes, and the court-monitored reforms as her most urgent priorities.
“I fell into a smaller group of police chiefs that are change agents,” she said. “People like me come in because we don’t have connections, we have a different set of eyes, we can more easily advance changes that need to occur.”
Kirkpatrick comes to a force and community with many similarities to the one she was booted from in Oakland: heavy violent crime, racially charged politics, and one of the nation’s longest-running police reform agreements overseen by a federal judge.
At 440,000 residents, Oakland is a bit larger than New Orleans, with a murder rate that ranks high on the West Coast but stands well below that of the Crescent City.
Both cities’ police forces have remained for years under two of the nation’s longest-running police reform agreements, which leave immense power in the hands of a federal judge. New Orleans' has run 11 years. Oakland's remains in play more than two decades later.
The spark for reform in New Orleans came after Hurricane Katrina, in the police shootings of innocent civilians on the Danziger Bridge, a coverup, and an officer killing Henry Glover behind an Algiers strip mall.
In Oakland, it was the Riders, an alleged side cadre of Oakland cops that brutalized civilians. Like in New Orleans, the federal watch remained while the prosecution of the officers stumbled.
Nearer to Kirkpatrick’s arrival in 2017 came a sex scandal involving numerous Oakland cops allegedly trafficking an underage girl whose mother worked as a police dispatcher.
Kirkpatrick took it on the chin in Oakland as she clashed with the independent police monitor and the commission. She claimed retaliation for reporting alleged corruption on the commission, winning a jury verdict and a $1.5 million settlement.
After her firing, Kirkpatrick unloaded on the federal monitor to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The only reason the police department is 'out of compliance' is not because of its officers, policies or procedures. It is because (the monitor) wants to keep milking Oakland for money," she said.
If that sounds like channeling Cantrell, who has railed on the federal monitor in New Orleans and fought to exit the consent decree, Millington considered it venting. He said Kirkpatrick didn’t float those attacks with her command staff.
“She was of high moral character. That’s a blemish to morale. It defeats what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Here’s what I remember about her clearly: Her goal was to get us out of (court oversight). Everyone had a responsibility. It was explained very clearly.”
But Oakland didn’t get out of it under Kirkpatrick’s watch, and some critics claim she didn’t do enough to get there.
A complex legacy
Kirkpatrick endured intense criticism over her handling of discipline after five officers were involved in the 2018 shooting of a homeless man they’d awoken. The federal monitor over Oakland police wanted much heavier discipline than Kirkpatrick was willing to impose, calling her analysis “disappointing and myopic,” according to reporting by the East Bay Times.
Ali Winston, a journalist who co-authored a recent book on the Riders scandal and policing in Oakland, said Kirkpatrick was brought in to help “break up a frathouse atmosphere” but caved to the rank-and-file.
“She claimed to reverse culture in the department but basically rolled back serious discipline on a number of officers and didn’t follow through with a mandate to ensure consistency of discipline, that all cases are investigated thoroughly,” Winston said.
John Burris, a civil rights attorney involved in the Oakland police reform case, agreed that Kirkpatrick went light on the officers in the case.
“She really made an effort to cover it up,” he said. “She went out of her way to shade things and interpret them in a way that was designed to protect the officers.”
Millington, the former internal affairs commander, declined to discuss that case but shrugged off the criticism and said Kirkpatrick “stood on morals.”
“She has to make a judgment call based on facts, based on how our officers are trained. Based on the circumstances as they were perceived at the time under the law at the time,” he said. “Not how it’s perceived by another party or pressures brought on.”
John Alden, who led an independent police review agency that investigated Oakland officer misconduct, said he met weekly with Kirkpatrick and thinks highly of her.
He said Kirkpatrick has a “guardian,” rather than a “warrior,” mentality as a police leader. He said she excelled at elevating mid- and high-level leaders “who cared about reform and cared about accountability, cared about transparency.”
“They liked that she would back them up, even when they made tough calls. That impressed me,” Alden said.
Violent crime was trending down in Oakland, as it was across the country, until shortly after Kirkpatrick was fired in February 2020. Alden said Oakland police under her watch began to undertake new methods of rooting out bias on the force.
He said Kirkpatrick also stuck behind a successful street “violence interrupters” program she inherited, similar to one in New Orleans that is being resuscitated.
Alden said Kirkpatrick proved particularly adept at improving Oakland’s police disciplinary system, a longstanding issue for officer groups in New Orleans, and a current source of tension between the federal judge overseeing the reforms and Cantrell.
“It became clear that it needed to be restructured, and (she) went ahead, shut down the factory and retooled, really improved the quality of the work and the timeliness,” Alden said.
He described Kirkpatrick as a quiet talker who will break out her Memphis accent on occasion, “usually when she was being extra calm.”
Millington recalled Kirkpatrick, early in her tenure in Oakland, once pulling up to a meeting at a motorcycle club in a violent area of the city, all by herself, in a yellow sweater.
“Everyone just thought, ‘Wow. Kudos for her,'” he said. “She doesn’t have any fear.”
Last one standing
Kirkpatrick, who began with Memphis police in the 1980s, would make between $274,000 and $360,000 under the city’s new pay scale for police chief.
She ranked among three finalists from a Cantrell-appointed panel of a dozen “stakeholders.” The International Chiefs of Police, which conducted the national search, scored her second ahead of interim Superintendent Michelle Woodfork among the three finalists it forwarded to Cantrell. The top scorer among them, former NOPD officer and Henderson, Nevada chief Thedrick Andres, took a chief's job in Texas.
City Council member Oliver Thomas, who sat on the stakeholder panel, didn’t think Kirkpatrick performed “as smooth” verbally as other candidates. She also lacked the local knowledge of Woodfork or Andres.
But council member Joe Giarrusso, who wasn't on the panel, said it’s hard to overlook Kirkpatrick’s bona fides.
"Looking at it in a vacuum, she has a BA, MA and JD. She is highly educated," he said. "She's been a chief already for 20 years.”
Giarrusso pointed to her work on nascent police reforms in Chicago, where she served for six months as a police liaison to the Department of Justice during its civil rights investigation. Kirkpatrick was a finalist for the chief's job in Chicago in 2016.
“And then she was a chief in Oakland, which has similar challenges,” Giarrusso said. "If you're starting to unravel, 'Who is Anne?', there are things outside of being a native New Orleanian that you would want in somebody who's supposed to fit the profile."
Donovan Livaccari, attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police, also sat on the outside panel that interviewed the finalists.
He pointed to her durability.
"Law enforcement has long been a male-dominated field. And it is difficult to succeed as a female in law enforcement. (Kirkpatrick) has accomplished that, and I think that says something about her character,” he said. “I think it says something about her stick-to-it-ive-ness."